The Chocolate Muffin; or, Doctrine, Biblical Symbolism, and Worship–With Illustrations!

Note: I’m placing this in “Allegory” because it focuses on symbolism and I feel that creating a category solely devoted to symbolism would be counter-productive.

Sunday, 15 April 2012. It was the first time I had been to church in over six months. There was prayer, there was worship, there was a beautiful if slightly percussive rendition of “Amazing Grace”. There was Scripture reading, from a translation somewhere between the Living Bible and the Message paraphrase. The sermon was good, relatable to most, very sound. The church believed in the active gifts of the Spirit, in baptism by immersion, in the cleansing gift of salvation.

But I’m not here to talk about the church or that service. I’m here to talk about Naomi, the church bulletin, and a chocolate-chip muffin.

For months, we had been inundated by false doctrine. I shan’t go into detail here, but will say only that several churches in our area had been teaching in error. Now, Naomi and I were both so nervous and weary that we were on our guards against nearly everything. As she skimmed the bulletin that morning, a name jumped out at her–a guest speaker? A pastor? A missionary? I do quite a bit of apologetic reading, so she directed her inquiry to me. “Otis Spunkmeyer–is he sound?”

Well, as most of my readers are aware, Otis Spunkmeyer has never made himself any sort of public evangelist–at least, not that I’ve read… A closer reading of the bulletin revealed that “Coffee and Otis Spunkmeyer pastries will be served in the fellowship hall”. Well, I’ve heard of a fruit-check–the Word clearly states that men are known by their fruits–but a pastry-company check?

Looking back, I don’t know whether to laugh, cry, or analyze–chuckle over the reading faux pas, or weep for the caution that drove us to such extremes. Frankly, it is a poignant moment if you’ve been so long in a fellowship wilderness that you must question every name that comes to you from a bulletin. However, I think a different course of action is in order. I don’t believe Naomi ever got her question answered, and what kind of friend would I be if I didn’t take her seriously? Does Otis Spunkmeyer, or does he not, have good theology? Let’s investigate.

Well, I know that I used to invite this gentleman into a place of worship. For several years, my home contained a room we all designated The Chapel–a place of Scripture reading, working on ministry projects, and general moments in Jesus. During several evenings in 2004, I took a cup of coffee and a chocolate-chip Otis Spunkmeyer muffin into that apartment and placed them on a low stool. Using the stool as a table, I sat on the floor near the bookcase, where I had easy access to the Bible and the CD case full of worship materials. And then, abandoning my dessert tradition before it had even begun, I would listen and read. 1 John 2:27. “Let Your Anointing Fall” by Don Moen. Prayers for more and more of His glory–rivers of living water. Feeble but heart-felt attempts at knitting a Bible case for Naomi. More worship. Purest adoration, basking in His presence. Although there were days when the coffee grew cold and the muffin dried out before I even thought to eat it, the fact of an Otis Spunkmeyer muffin in the Chapel remains. Now, I ask you, would I bring a man who wasn’t sound into these precious 2004 moments?

But all of that is personal experience. Let’s be a bit more scientific about it, shall we? We shan’t examine such things as calories and micronutrients, for those elements are never mentioned in Scripture. Instead…

* Firstly, I believe that the package designates Otis Spunkmeyer chocolate-chip muffins as Kosher dairy. Beauty, peace, and holiness! Kosher items are always sound.

* Wheat flour… What of all those wheat-related parables in Matthew 13?

* Milk products: Hmm. The Israelites were promised “a land flowing with milk and honey”, and we are told to “desire the pure milk of the Word”. More Biblical significance.

* I have no immediate access to the ingredients on a typical chocolate-chip muffin, but it would be more than reasonable for the pastries to contain salt. Symbolism: “You are the salt of the earth”…

* These muffins contain sugar, which is not nearly as Biblical as honey. However, just as no Christian is perfect, not all ingredients in food are perfectly Biblical. This symbolizes grace.

* Again, this is hearsay since I do not have access to an ingredient list, but I assume that these muffins came into contact with water at some point. I’ll let you figure that one out on your own. Naomi knows. If she ever stumbles onto this post, I will say for her benefit, “crystal-clear”.

* Of necessity, these pastries contain leavening. What of the parable of the yeast? Oh, I cherish Matthew 13!

* While certainly not present in chocolate-chip muffins, Otis Spunkmeyer cinnamon rolls contain, well, cinnamon! And did it ever occur to you, my beloved readers, that cinnamon is mentioned in Exodus and in the Song of Solomon?

* All muffins are wrapped in plastic, which isn’t Biblical in the slightest… But they are also encased in paper. Paper—parchment. Parchment–very special words, some of these being red letters. Not a direct correlation, but a vague association.

So much Scripture attached to so many ingredients. Such an abundance of joy and celebration during those prayer-closet dessert sessions.

Now, I could conclude this post one of two ways. I could play the role of a teacher and say, “My beloved readers, this is the way we must strive to think daily. Every minute of every hour, we should contemplate the things of the Lord–when we lie down and when we rise up, when we come in and when we go out. Prayer without ceasing. Whatsoever things are true, honest, just, pure–think on these things. To attach Biblical significance and symbolism to mundane experiences transforms those temporal objects and brings us closer to the Lord, even in our thoughts.” I could continue in this line of lecturing for several paragraphs, but to do so would be in clear violation of the “show, don’t tell” principle. So I will take the other route and conclude that:

Yes, dear Naomi, Otis Spunkmeyer is doctrinally sound.

Addendum: This post was composed while enjoying a glass of milk and–you probably guessed it!–a chocolate-chip Otis Spunkmeyer muffin. It was written not in the Chapel, but in the Sanctuary, another one of the many prayer-closets that comprise my life.

A Words Sketch… Of Words!

Lamb.

Seek.

Salt.

Fasting.

Table.

Birds.

Fisher…

Banquet.

Manna.

This is the evening-word tradition, and it is exquisite in beauty. It is the last thing Jedidiah says to me every night—the last human interaction I have at all, in fact, before ’tis off to rest and repose for me.

It all began several months ago. I had remarked to Naomi, Hannah, and Jedidiah that it would be so nice to conclude the day with something beautiful or edifying or even simply wholesome. Too often, we have a stress sandwich in our lives—a thick slice of turmoil, a thin and watered-down spreading of respite, followed by another coarse and grainy slice of strife–when we should have a joy sandwich, in which the Bread of Life is primary and frustration is not the focus. I proposed the “last wholesome word” idea in order to minimize some of that emotional tumult. Complete all that we need to do, then read and sing, then pray, then take ourselves off to bed with one single thought in mind. We all agreed to do it, but Jedidiah is the only one who has consistently remembered. Even after I long would have forgotten this part of our evening routine, Jedidiah continues with our word-recitation. Our WORD recitation?

And so it is every night around 11:00 PM: “David”. “Tabernacle”. “Seeking”. “River”. “Fruit”. “Solomon”. Once, the word was something like “lampstand”. In three seconds and two syllables or less, we’ve discussed everything from Levitical offerings and the glory of our risen Lord as found in Revelation to Jesus’ interactions with those who loved Him. Often, the word is abstract and I really have to ponder it before understanding the reference. Other times, the word has multiple meanings. When Jedidiah said “birds”, he could have been referring to the specific references to the seven pairs of birds brought onto the ark, to the many Scriptures about doves, or to the verse that proclaims that we shall mount up with wings like eagles. Jedidiah seldom explains the words he has chosen; they are for me to internalize—”show, don’t tell”, you know.

Sometimes, I attempt to exchange words with Jedidiah—he says “tablet”, and I am very tempted to say “covering” or “cheribum”. But then, just as I begin to hand him the word I have spent all night thinking of, something in his tone or in the very majesty of the word he has chosen stops me—stuns me into awed silence at the beauty of our holy, holy God. So, usually, the words go only one way.

I wonder if he knows, Jedidiah, the man whom the Lord loves. I wonder if he knows that I cherish the word-a-day tradition and the principle behind it. He has read Deuteronomy—numerous times, I’m sure—but does he remember what is written in chapter six, verses seven through nine: “[you] shall talk of [God’s commandments] when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. And you shall bind them as a sign upon your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. And you shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates”? Does he remember, and does he know how intensely meaningful the tradition is to me?

I have a word for him. It is morning as I write this, not evening. Jedidiah has not yet given me his treasure of a word, so I cannot be so swept away by God’s awesomeness as to forget my meagre little phrase. Writing it is not part of this tradition—too formal for something generally spontaneous. And yet, despite all of this, I have a word—nay, perhaps several words–for Jedidiah today…

Brother.

Beloved.

Servant.

Agape.

Grammatical Aside: You don’t get an addendum today—just a critique of our language! I wrote of “three seconds … or less”. Shouldn’t that more accurately be “fewer”—”three seconds or fewer”—since “seconds”, unlike “sand” or “water” or even “time”, can be tangibly counted? Yes, “three seconds and two syllables or FEWER”.

“Everything I See”; or, The Central Island: A Words Sketch

The Tour. It has become a daily tradition–most often during dinner preparation. I’m not sure whether anyone knows I do it–it tends to take place when several other things are happening simultaneously. Maybe one of these days, I will bring them with me–my readers, my loved-ones, my friends, anyone who needs a bit more zest in life…

It starts over by the kitchen table. The table is home to a few placemats, a candle holder whose metal structure spirals out into the shape of a flower, and a plethora of medical supplies. We usually sit at that table to perform my every-other-day Protein C infusion, so it’s not uncommon to see boxes of gloves (useful for handling raw meat or other distasteful substances), Tegaderm (IV tape, also known as the best lint-remover ever invented), thin pads for ensuring a sterile work surface (which, when no longer sterile, become Jacks of all trades), packages of rubbing alcohol (for cleaning iPods, cell phones, and the occasional landline), and small rolls of cloth medical tape over there. That’s just the way it is, and it’s a testament to how wonderfully the Lord has worked in our lives. Many years ago, my prognosis was not thought to be so good; the Lord answered prayer. Years ago, even when I was stable, we did not have Protein C, which meant that I had to be treated with plasma during week-long in-patient hospital stays, often treating also the severe allergic reactions that went along with plasma treatments. Our table being home to a box of supplies is a silent cry of praise, thanking the Lord for so much–that my port is working, that we have the Protein C, that I have experienced no clotting or bleeding episodes since 2007, that He has a plan and a calling and a purpose for me, that I am able to serve Him. Without opening an alcohol swab, I know that it holds the fragrance of relief, of great things done in my life, and of “Come Bless the Lord”.

But the table is only the beginning of the Tour. Facing sideways, between the table and our central island, is the chair in which I sit for the infusions. Most days, a medical mask hangs from one of the posts that make up the frame of the chair back. More memories, more thanksgiving.

The Tour proper begins on the breakfast bar. It is beauty, this countertop, and it bears much careful explanation.

First, the vaporizer. I check to see that it is plugged in, lingering momentarily on the cord’s location and contemplating the implications of it being plugged into the right vs. the left outlet. Then, I just stand there–wrapping my arms all the way around the square box of a vaporizer until my fingertips meet at the farthest end, bending over slightly until the warmth melts my heart and toasts my face, inhaling deep and exhilarating quantities of steam. This is where I ground myself for the rest of the Tour, where I come when life is stressful or when I want to remember the blessings in our lives or when I simply want to be enveloped for a few minutes. Steam. Warmth. Radiance.

Without taking my left hand off the vaporizer, I reach with my right until I encounter the first of three candles. This is always the way the Tour continues. Other facets of the Tour aren’t as structured depending on what there is to see, but the beginning is always the same. Three candles, all in glass jars, one with a wooden lid and the other two with sturdy glass lids like those produced by Yankee Candle. The lids are invariably askew; no one really cares about them except me, and they really can’t be affixed more firmly because Naomi and Hannah both have pain in their hands. I remove the top of the candle with the wooden lid. I don’t know why I do this–I always regret it. That candle smells like men’s cologne when it is unlit. The others smell of a time many years ago when we were living great, expansive, exuberant lives. All three candles feature wax remnants on the insides of the containers; these are always fun to examine. The candles tell stories, don’t you know–moments when we have wanted to eliminate the pungent reminders of eggs, broccoli, and frying taco meat from our kitchen and living room. I always place the candles very carefully and deliberately exactly where I found them. Again, no one else particularly cares whether the candles go between the Nesquick and the coffee, or whether I find a clear space to ceremoniously set them down in a joyous row–but I care. This is a landscape, an exquisite work of art, and I do not want to mar it with my meddling. That would defeat the purpose of the Tour.

If I were to take my left hand off the vaporizer, I might encounter either a rice steamer or a vegetable steamer, or both. Those are even more beautiful than the vaporizer. I have made a point of observing both steamers through their entire cycles–vegetable steamer on the right, rice steamer on the left–simply because it afforded an opportunity to rest in the moment. The art of steaming asparagus or green beans is a bath for the senses. Another story, another precious series of recollections.

Today, however, there are no steamers on the breakfast bar. Instead, there is an enormous box of what used to be minute rice. I shake the box in order to ascertain how much deliciosity we have before we will need to open a new box of equal proportions. There is about 3/8 of a serving, by my estimation. Oh, and the memories that rice pours forth! Salmon with rice and asparagus, turkey sausage with rice and broccoli, stuffed peppers without the pepper (I call this stuffified) with rice and onion rings, teriyaki chicken with rice and green beans, rice with rice and more rice… It has been transformed from a staple and now borders on a lifestyle, this unassuming food–not even Calrose or brown rice, but classic white minute rice. It has been a comfort when we were sick in body or at heart, a moment of umph when things were going well. So much in a family-sized box of rice!

Jedidiah’s candy dish… Where do I start? Well, it is a wide, shallow, glass dish whose sides slope up much like the contours of a Communion tray I own. The tray has Scriptures etched onto it and the serving dish is merely painted with a tactilely nondescript pattern, but Jedidiah’s dish reminds me of that tray—not the content or the context, but my mind enjoys carving associations where few exist, and those associations seldom deviate from connecting nonspiritual things with spiritual. Inside the dish I find one of my coconut LaraBars–How did that get there? Jedidiah? Are you now eating organically? Evidently not, for that LaraBar is nestled among a few cast-off candy bars (Snickers and Pay Days do not carry the thrill of Almond Joys and Peppermint Patty delights), some black-licorice gum drops, a packet of hot cocoa, and an inexplicable bunch of healthy but non-organic bananas. It’s like living in a diverse community and learning to appreciate and celebrate differences rather than trying to conform all people to a certain mold…

The Tour continues with an extravagant pile of general miscellany. Today, a roll of Scotch tape rests atop the whey protein that sometimes constitutes Jedidiah’s harried breakfasts. A travel coffee mug, newly scrubbed, awaits placement in the cupboard next to a stack of mail. A spiral notebook rests atop a big box of presumed knickknacks–it’s not my box, so I don’t know whether it actually contains pens, opals, or little Willow Tree carvings. We just went shopping, so several bags line part of the countertop. Drifting just outside the bags are two bottles of vanilla syrup and a jar of hot sauce. Further along is the Tabasco’s companion–a partially-full box of taco shells. I have placed a tube of arnica atop a jar of lotion in anticipation of Hannah’s hand massage, a time of worship and prayer that blesses us both. A bottle of glue does a merry dance near an unopened carbonated-beverage can. I unearth a napkin and a fork beneath a bag of egg noodles. Poor, defenseless fork–it should really have been propped up against the Nesquick for all to see, since it is one of our favorite pieces of flatware. The package that Martha recently sent tempts me to peek beneath its half-open flaps, but that box has been designated for Christmas. Gatorades for Naomi and Hannah and, for that matter, for anyone who is fasting and needs to replenish certain body systems, or for those with generalized malaise. Garlic-and-parsley salt atop a tub of butter, the better for applying both to a Bordeaux roll. I love discovering associations like these! An empty iPod case and an inexpensive iPod station should be united–they’re fraternal twins, are they not?–but my purpose is to look and listen, not to alter. Often, there’s a bag of dried cherries on the counter; when there is, I first admire the intricate fastener on the zip-lock and compare it with most of the other bags we own, then eat a handful of cherries and process every nuance of their paradoxically sweet and tart flavors. Pen cap, sugar container, bottle of vitamins, a single woolen winter glove, honey, a purse, a zip-lock bag holding the corn muffins we had with our bean soup the other night, mail, magazines, two flashlights, the cloth bag in which I keep Natasha’s dog treats. Am I overanalyzing, or did that list resemble something from 14,000 THINGS TO BE HAPPY ABOUT?

My Tour ends, at least in heart, with the Blessing Jar. This is a tallish plastic jar, empty as yet, with two grooves for easy gripping. In print, it is inscribed with the words “Blessings, 2015”; in Braille, with the title “Our Offering of Worship”. Naomi keeps encouraging us to wait until January to begin writing the things for which we’re grateful on tiny slips of paper and adding them to the jar. Now, my beloved readers, I have been known to read two months’ worth of ostensibly daily devotionals within the first thirty minutes of receiving such a book. Do you suppose the “begin-on-1-January-and-go-from-there” notion works for me? My plan: To write the blessings from this month also, cut them to size, and slip the “renegades” in as the jar begins to fill over these next few months.

Now, my beloved readers, the rest of you have what you would call an advantage over me. If you were taking the Tour, you would see all of these items at a glance. Your big-picture brains would see a collection at best and a conglomeration at worst. Perhaps you would reserve labels for such an experience. Even those nearest and dearest don’t always enjoy the situation. They use “messy”, “disorganized”, and “chaotic” to describe my special Tour.

Why?

Truly, I believe I have the advantage. I do not see these objects–hence, the Braille on the Blessing Jar. Instead, I smell the candles, listen to the rattling rice, taste the cherries, and wrap my hands around everything else. And it’s all exquisitely, unequivocally splendid–not because I don’t take it in at a glance, but because I am passionate about each detail and see pieces, patterns, and associations (sometimes, I admit, to the exclusion of the big picture). The central island may not always remain pristine, but it does illustrate quintessential home life. It’s the difference between a perfectly-decorated but highly-formal house and a lived-in, comfortable, informal home filled with the sort of love that isn’t present in a perfectly-put-together mansion. That breakfast bar is a panorama of our lives; it tells the stories of so many meals, so much reading that we’ve found noteworthy or conversely wanted to discard, so many precious times with Martha, so much laughter involving Natasha, so many snowy strolls (remember the glove!?), ideas that called for an instant writing utensil, gifts that needed to be wrapped and taped… Times of joy, laughter, contentment, consternation, boredom, and even some heartache. Glory, peace, worship, blessings, miracles, and awe. It is the indoor multi-sensory equivalent of a walk by the ocean on a rocky beach with cliffs and ledges jutting out over the water. Now, how can I possibly label that using any adjective other than “treasured”?

We view our lives as stressful, chaotic, disorganized, busy, frustrating, and overwhelming. Perhaps if we applied the Tour to our hearts, examining and resting in each wonderful detail that the Lord provides, we would gain a different perspective. Perhaps then our lives would appear to us as intricate, unique, set-apart in the Lord, individualized, special, beautiful, glorious, profound, intense, elated, worthwhile, peaceful, and restful. Perhaps we all need Tours—not of the central island, but of who we are, what we do, and the words and activities that form the juncture between the two. Our own walks along the ocean, complete with majestic waves and the kind of spray that tinges the air and the moment with ambiance.

Addendum: This song connection is a bit different. “Everything I See” is from the children’s Agapeland album GOD LOVES FUN by the Bridgestone Music Group. The singer, a child with pure joy shining through her voice, sings of beholding God’s love in everything she sees—birds, butterflies, a blue sky and the sunlight… Remember my rocky beach? Well, everything I witness in life does remind me of God’s love or another aspect of Who He is. The song is full of jubilation, and I believe it should be part of a Christian library regardless to whether my readers have children. I do believe the album, which is anointed, is newly available from the iTunes Store.

“Give Thanks”: The Epic Project, Wherein I Rejoice in Another Year in Jesus

Before I pen this post, allow me to say that what you are about to read is entirely Hannah’s doing. It wouldn’t have come to this were it not for that beloved sister of mine…

Back in 2011, we were doing our normal Thanksgiving things. I was rejoicing in the ways that the Lord had shown Himself to be my hiding place. We made macaroni and cheese, mashed potatoes and green-bean casserole, a delicious basket of rolls… and—oh, yes—a turkey. We poured glasses of iced tea, set out plates adorned with sunflowers and I Corinthians XIII—not the most seasonal solution, but those plates were special to us—and sat at the table to pray. On the table next to my plate was the digital voice recorder. I had scarcely been without it since July of that year, and I had no intention of allowing Thanksgiving to go unscrapbooked. Well, we prayed, and then Jedidiah asked us to describe what we were all thankful for that year. Blessings were declared—we were thankful for God’s work in our lives, for each member of this exquisite family, for physical health… When it was my turn, I said:

“Last year, I was thankful for my spiritual life and that the Lord had gotten me through that year. It was so trying, and I was just determined that HE HAD GOTTEN US THROUGH THAT YEAR! and because things were looking better… that that would be kind of the end of most of our trials. I, I thought that. [Meaning: I really believed this, naively.] And this year, I’m thankful—yes, for the same thing, for my spiritual life… But I’m thankful that He has become my secret place. I’m not thankful because I think that it’s going to be the end of all trials. Maybe it is; maybe this is the last thing that we’re ever really going to have to go through… But I’m thankful that He’s going to get us through anything. I’m thankful that He’s shown me that, and that He’s taught me how to trust again. I’m thankful for the times when I had to really pray through … A plane trip that [Hannah] took when [she] went to see [an acquaintance]. … But that I didn’t have to panic about the whole airplane thing. [I am terrified of flying, and of having my loved-ones fly, but the Lord had sustained me when Hannah took that trip.] I’m thankful that He has taught me again how to trust and how to take refuge in Him—and, no, I’m not perfect at it, but I was certainly a whole lot less perfect at it last year, and all I really wanted [at that time] was for everything to go away. All I really want now is to see His glory.”

As you may have deduced from the disjointed nature of that speech and from the excessive use of brackets, I just listened to the recording of that moment and inserted a transcript of it here. Well, toward the end of that speech, everyone was embracing and weeping, so overjoyed at Who He is. After the emotion of the moment had died down, though, I was teased for quite some time because I had not done the typical minute-and-a-half cataloguing of earthly and spiritual blessings and left it at that. “You gave a speech!” “A message!” “What was that—a mini-sermon without the pastorship?” Yes, yes it was. Furthermore, I am convinced that 2011 would have been a one-time event were it not for some of the teasing. However, Hannah’s remarks have made me feel that the 2011 speech should be an annual tradition, and I have done my best to make it so ever since. Last year, I believe I spoke on being set free from a paralyzing depression and gradually restored thereafter.

I have been contemplating all of this for over a week. I plan to carry on the tradition this year, but would like to do it with deliberate umph. If I believed in the use of PowerPoint, I would create one—but I don’t, and never will. PowerPoint is for business meetings. It is not appropriate for church, because it should not be used in worship of any kind—and, at their core, these little speeches of mine are worship. So, no PowerPoint. Instead, I plan to use actual, tangible objects to illustrate my life, placing them on the table one at a time and expounding on their significance. I may also employ music.

And now, my beloved readers, you are going to be a part of my brain-storming session. Commencons!

“Back in April, 2012, I accompanied you on a number of errands. At one point, we stopped at [a diner] for chocolate malts. As I waited, I found a paper napkin. [At this point, I will reach into the bag I will have brought and retrieve a paper napkin. I will probably unfold the napkin as I talk.] Suddenly, I was caught up in what that napkin would look like if I unfolded it—how the thin, fragile paper would resemble the intricacy of Bible pages. And, oh, to think on the Word of God! For the rest of the day, my heart was enveloped in a knowledge of His presence. This, I learned, is what it is to pray without ceasing. It is possible—Paul was not employing hyperbole when he told us to do that. And for months after, the them of prayer without ceasing continued to envelop me. It was as though the Lord was taking a passage I had only ever read and applying it directly to my heart. It was shortly thereafter that I realized that my life is really comprised of themes—great, overarching ideas that characterize certain eras in my spiritual life.

“This year has been no different. First, there was the era of rest—from November of last year to early March of this year. [I have a candle decorated with four crosses. The lid, too, has a cross cut into the top, and the effect is like that of a lantern. The candle itself is highly fragrant and would detract from the food aromas that will be filling the dining area, so I will simply bring the lid, holding it up and emphasizing the cross.] There are many things in life that I am not all that good at—thinking holistically when my brain wants me to be so concrete about life, engaging in intense emotional or physical exertion and finding work a pleasure, certain types of paperwork, talking to others… But one thing I am good at is knowing how to rest. I’m good at listening to worship music in many different languages, loving the Old Covenant as well as the New, connecting mundane words and phrases with the things of God… Resting. Being rather than doing. Of course, there used to be quite a tension in my heart between what I knew I was called to do and what I felt others expected of me. The classic Mary and Martha tension—but, you know, Jesus loved them both. And gradually, I learned to do what I needed to do without tearing myself away from worship, and I learned that worship and rest comprised a glorious calling that should not be spurned. This was when I learned to devote one specific day to Him each week, and when I wrote and refinded that allegory. [The allegory is entitled “Your Grace Is Sufficient” and is present on this blog.] I’m so thankful…

“From early March to early May, the overarching theme was honesty. By this, I don’t mean simply not lying, or even just telling the truth—but a sense of purity, holiness, and sincerity that penetrates every facet of life. [I have an old-fashioned-looking glass bottle with a quaint latch and an artistic handle. I call it the Iced Tea Lantern. I will be setting it on the table, filled with iced tea. Unlike other objects, which I will be retrieving and then replacing, the Iced Tea Lantern will remain on the table—both as a symbol of something I’m still experiencing and for the practical purpose of using it as my beverage du jour.] Those were the days of writing the Alpha and Omega Project [an annotated compendiom of everything that had ever blessed me or my family]. That project required a level of sincerity that was sometimes daunting, but always exhilarating. It also served as a reminder that I have a profoundly unique perspective on life. Like the Iced Tea Lantern—you know that iced tea is a motif, that it tells a story of sunshine and clean laundry freshly warmed in the dryer and of children’s Maranatha! Recordings and of coming home from a long journey. To others, iced tea is simply iced tea. Sometimes, this has been a gift; at other times, a challenge. I call it the rosebush—both thorns and blooms. That theme of honesty embedded itself in my heart and removed any possibility of facades. I shan’t elaborate on this, but the Scripture for that theme is John 1:43-50, which describes Jesus’ interactions with Nathanael. The Lord gave me that passage in 2010, and these past few months have only served to reiterate it. Yes, I’m so thankful.

“Then, from 6 May to 6 July, there was the era of restoration. First, on 6 May, the Lord showed me that He is enough, no matter how some of His people treat me in church and such… Let’s not dwell on that, save to say that He is my shield, my exceedingly great reward. On 7 May, He promised to restore me and to heal the heartache caused by so much pain in 2006. [I will retrieve my Bible, a Revised Standard Version in a quilted cotton case, trimmed in softest lace, with a cameo affixed to it.] This Bible was given to me in 2004, when life was still pure and new… Then, I endured things that threatened to shred my heart, and I did not know what to do about them. I didn’t even think to ask the Lord for healing because, on the surface at least, I appeared fully set free. Only I knew the turmoil I continued to experience. But then, for two weeks in May, the Lord gradually began to restore me… And then, on 21 May, He set me completely free from all the anguish of 2006. [Singing while Unzipping this case to reveal a worn and much-loved leather Bible] “He’s turned my mourning into dancing again…” And I am full of joy. Every waking moment, I now spend dancing in my heart before the Lord, worshiping Him with a devotion I thought had been silenced, soaring on eagles’ wings, rejoicing in a treasure I cannot even put into words. [If I can find it in time and fix a flaw in the construction, I will hold aloft a Willow Tree carving, a girl who appears to be dancing with abandon, with her arms outstretched. I will also be placing the Bible in my lap instead of returning it to the bag—again, symbolic of something I continue to experience.] Hallelujah! I’m so thankful…

“I think I would have continued doing exactly what I was doing—rejoicing, but perhaps without as much growth—had it not been for 7 July. You all know the story: hot water heater, long and complicated days, new carpet… [Retrieving a small battery-operated water fountain, with no rocks but with enough water for the demonstration.] I was torn by all of this. For a time, I feared that I had lost what the Lord had so recently given… But then… [Now, adding the little rocks that go with this fountain, one by one until all are in place.] Then, there was a time of devotion. Of remembering anew who I am in Christ Jesus. Of continuing to read Matthew and Isaiah and Psalms. Of studying Hebrews with [Naomi] and just holding fast to the Father. Of spending that week in the Oasis, and listening to the Oasis Network [a Christian radio station from Oklahoma]. Of learning to differentiate emotional stress from spiritual turmoil. Of putting my apartment back together after having been displaced—rearranging the furniture, and allowing it to be symbolic of starting anew. Of acquiring the new sofa set and doing interesting things like recording the Phonetic Alphabet. Of writing that poem, the one about tears, cascading down… [At this point, turning on the waterfall and allowing water to actually trickle down the twists and turns in that little structure. Quietly:] Yes, I am thankful.

“And then, do you know what He taught me? He taught me about healing [displaying a container of anointing oil], and about spiritual warfare [a wooden representation of the Armor of God]. You know that I was very concerned about an impending doctor’s appointment for a time. And yet, what went on in my prayer-closet was a different story entirely. During those evenings when I drank tea and listened to the Oasis network, I was being constantly reminded of the power of the Holy Spirit. In fact, Acts II might well be the theme for all of October. That’s why we read so much of it together. [Over the past several weeks, I have been requesting recordings of specific chapters in Acts, particularly those pertaining to healing, God speaking to His servants, and othyer manifestations of His power.] This has been a time of learning anew to love, to cherish, to rejoice in, the comfort of the Holy Spirit, and to trust Him. All of this was clarified to me in what the Lord said to Hezekiah—”Surely, I will heal you.” If ever I needed this promise confirmed to my heart, it was last month—and now it is firmly etched there again, a promise for me as well as for that king of Judah. The spiritual warfare aspect of this came in when I began to remember that when we resist the devil, he must flee from us. I didn’t always trust the Lord to the extent that I should have, and sometimes I didn’t come against Satan—as evidenced from some of the things I said and refused to let go—but I began to learn, to see what it was to put on the whole Armor of God, and to call on Jesus when I was tempted. Believe it or not, Mark is full of moments that emphasize spiritual warfare. We’ll explore them sometime… And I really am so thankful.

“And now? Is there an overarching theme for this moment? Yes, there is… It is a portion of Colossians 3:3: “Your life is hid with Christ in God.” [Removing several Communion cups—a few olive-wood, some glass, some plastic, some of slightly different shapes—and one taller cup, more fragile glass, and elaborately engraved.] You may have noticed that I have been quiet, especially last week. In fact, [Hannah] even told me that I looked sad. I wasn’t melancholy then, and I’m not now. I have been quiet because [a sister in Christ] and I have been talking about what makes each of us unique. I had confided to her that I sometimes drive myself and others to distraction by some of my eccentricities. I have tortured myself for years, wondering whether I should change but constantly held by those Scriptures about honesty [tapping the Iced Tea Lantern]. Well, as [this sister in Christ] and I were discussing the ins and outs of what needed to be changed and what didn’t, the Lord filled me with the deepest possible of peace. Ever since that time, He has been guiding me through every moment of every day. It is as though He has been carrying me. And ever and always, a constant in my life and what He has engraved at the deepest level on my heart, has been the Scripture about my life being hidden with Christ in God. [Noting the Communion cups] We are all vessels for His glory, used by Him—some of us to reach those who are broken, some to give nourishment and provide leadership to those inside the church. [Holding up the one unique cup] And some of us are Mary of Bethany, called to rest and worship, made of different materials and with different adornments and of a different size… It used to bother me that I did not look like other vessels, that I did not belong to this group or that one or the ones over here [separating the different types of cups into groups]. Now, though, I have learned for myself that my life belongs to Him, that it is hidden. In Christ. With God. I wish I had more profound words to express this concept—I wish I could explain it adequately—but for now, all I know is that it is in my heart, placed there by the Lord. I know that we are all hidden with Him when we die to self, despite trials or quirks or pain or brokenness or earthly difficulties. And I know I am so very thankful.”

That will be my speech—or my presentation, however you would like to think of it. I just proofread this post while taking notes on the things I would need and the points I wanted to emphasize within each of the seven themes. It begins to strike me that perhaps this project is too vast for the Thanksgiving table. Never mind that my own food will get cold—I could live with that, and it does not concern me. However, some of this bears the undivided attention of Jedidiah and Company. I might bring it into the living room following our feast and show others what the Lord has been doing in my life—things that I have felt ill-equipped to discuss before because they were so close to my heart. However I do this, I know that it should be a joyful and celebratory project that may help to put the spiritual aspect back into this day.

Thank you for the ideas, Hannah, no matter how inadvertently you bestowed them in 2011.

Addendum: “Give Thanks” is one of those delightful songs which proclaims the Lord as all-powerful. Centered on the provision of the Holy Spirit; the grace of God the Father, Who is referred to as the Holy One; and rejoicing in the gift of Jesus Christ—absolutely beautiful! Any of the various versions by Don Moen is anointed, but I am basing this post off of the rendition from his album “Worship with Don Moen”. As far as I can tell, this album is still unavailable from the iTunes Store, but may be purchased from Don Moen’s website.

“To God Be the Glory!”; or, Infusion Day: A Words Sketch

Practically speaking, this is the most beautiful day in our entire month. This is the day we know as Tysabri, or Infusion Day–but I call it Miracle Day, Grace Day, and Rejoicing Day.

We pack for this occasion. We bundle Natasha’s doggy-bed into the trunk, fold battery adapters and miscellaneous cords into laptop cases, and bring along Gatorades and bottled water. We remind each other not to forget iPads and iPods, speakers and digital voice recorders. And above all, we always pack Naomi’s Bible.

We drive the fifteen minutes to the hospital, harness Natasha, and make our way across the parking lot, past a musical and fragrant water fountain if it happens to be summertime, through the double doors, and toward the medical center’s coffee shop. This is a tradition, and Infusion Day sans mochas would be akin to traipsing about an amusement park all day without going on any rides. So, we deposit our fifty pounds’ worth of personal property on tables and chairs in the coffee’s dining area, then turn our attention to the business of investigating pastries–an earnest activity indeed. There is that delightful cinnamon roll, and that delicious-looking apple turnover, and an overly-sappy brownie. Over in the little refrigerator are containers of hummus and bottles of iced tea. Oh, the options! But today is a bagel day. A toasted-sesame-seed-bagel, cream-cheese, and cinnamon-infused-chai day. A mocha day for Naomi, and a latte day for Hannah. Sadly, her latte is not as delectible as our beverages… That isn’t part of our tradition! It is Hannah’s idea to infuse the steamed milk with cinnamon before adding chai, and it is the best thing she has ever done for our special custom. The only problem: I can’t request this sort of thing from any other coffee establishment, because the cinnamon-infused-chai experience now belongs to the hospital, and only to the hospital!

Between her toasting and steaming and blending, the barista banters back and forth with us. It’s not a bagel if it’s not toasted. Perhaps it will warm up soon–she certainly hopes so. Does enjoying a varietey of coffee syrups pose a problem because it encourages unhealthy consumption, or is it a blessing because it means you have a zest for life? Oh, and by the way, how is our day going? “Very well,” Hannah says just as I exclaim, “Blessed beyond measure!” It is just this sort of comment that endows the day with such exquisite joy and peace–the freedom to describe our lives as blessed beyond description, and to know in our hearts that it is true, even if our exuberance does surprise our barista a bit.

Then it’s past the outer waiting room, down a single corridor, through a large set of doors, and into the infusion center proper. Today, we have the room to the immediate left as you go down the second corridor. And on this lovely day, we are all ensconced in our own special places. The room has two infusion chairs, and I sit in the one in the corner closest to the wall–quiet, separate, isolated, perfect for writing and reflection while observing the goings-on from a distance. And praying, of course…

And those nurses! They settle Naomi in the other infusion chair, provide all three of us with warm blankets, hand us chilled bottles of water, plug in adapters when we are too encumbered to reach the electrical outlets ourselves. And it’s not out of any form of professional obligation–they really care. They ask about Jedidiah’s life, about Hannah’s CNA certification, about what I am studying in the Word, and about Naomi’s heart as well as her heart rate. It is beautiful.

Nurse Steadfast is working with us today. Nurse Song-in-Heart is usually Naomi’s nurse, but she is off-duty at the moment. Nurse Steadfast and Nurse Song-in-Heart are best friends and enjoy talking to us about the things of God. They both have such audible joy deep within, love for the Lord that shines through their voices, that I often confuse them and call one by the other’s name. They seem to take this as a compliment.

Nurse Steadfast begins the IV. As she swabs Naomi’s arm and searches for a vein, she inquires as to how Jedidiah is doing–by way of distraction, I suppose. If it were my arm she was scrubbing, I would have no patience for something like that and would insist that we all keep silence until the IV was firmly in place–distraction works only to irritate me. However, Naomi is different and I admire Nurse Steadfast’s keen ability to make an unpleasant procedure like this one less anxiety-inducing. While the two of them chat and prepare, I take this moment to pray. I pray that the IV be placed the first time and that Nurse Steadfast be given wisdom and guidance, and I ask the Lord that Naomi’s Tysabri might be used to strengthen her body and treat her MS. When I remember, I pray that the rest of the day be free of the fatigue and headache that are often side effects of this medication. Actually, prayer is the primary reason I even come to these appointments. The coffee is delicious, the family time is beautiful, and the Bible reading we do is downright joyous, but I know I can actually serve by petitioning the Lord on Naomi’s behalf. I may not be terribly adept at guiding Naomi’s IV poll through the corridors or getting everyone situated comfortably, but I can pray, and I come just to perform this little service before the Lord. Today, the IV placement goes well and Naomi is hooked up to a line within five minutes. Praise Him!

Nurse Steadfast and Naomi continue to talk. Hannah intermittently jokes with Nurse Steadfast and plays with her gidget-gadgets–you know, cell phone, iPad, electronic toys… I write, half-listening to the swirling conversation around me and jumping in to add the occasional joyful and generally unconventional comment. We drink coffee and eat bagels, while a sense of God’s presence continues to mount in me until I can scarcely contain it. If Jedidiah had been here, we would discuss his blessing of a job. Happily, he is not here, so we can discuss his birthday and the seafood restaurant to which we plan to take him. Yum!

Finally, Nurse Steadfast gets a telephone call that necessitates her going to see another patient. Then comes my favorite part of Infusion Day–not the most important part, or my reason for being there, but my favorite part all the same–for it is then that Naomi takes my digital voice recorder, opens her Bible, and begins to read. We’ve read from John and Hebrews, Genesis and Psalms, but today is almost the best of all because we are in Mark. Now, Mark is special because there is a sense of immediacy about it and because so much of Christ’s ministry is discussed in a single chapter. Today, we are in Mark II, and all that Jesus did and said is downright overwhelming. As I listen to Jesus’ healing of a paralytic, of His words on fasting and concerning the Sabbath, and of His calling of Levi, I am reminded of the absolute glory, the great and overwhelming holiness of this Savior I serve. Without ever really being able to articulate why, I find myself in tears, raising my hands before the Lord, worshiping Him with all my heart as though this is the first time I have ever heard anything about the Trinity. It is like the first day the Lord ever taught me to praise Him, and it is all I can do not to leap out of my seat and dance with all my might, crying, “Hallelujah! Hallelujah!”

Naomi finishes reading and a profound hush, a peace-saturated silence, fills the room. I try to explain what this has meant to me, but there are no words. Just then, Nurse Steadfast returns and we resume our conversation with her. This time, all of us are a bit more reflective. We pull her in to our Bible study, discussing Lamentations and the faithfulness of God, the initial motives of the Pharisees and Jesus’ interactions with them and, above all, God’s endless and abiding love. I remark that we sometimes do wrong because we forget to what great depths we are loved by the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. I then spend several moments trying to explain what God has been teaching me over the past four days–that He has been speaking to my heart through Colossians 3:3. Oh, it is marvelous!

I begin this post to the tune of several songs that Naomi and Hannah are playing on the iPod station. They’s definitely a bit more percussive than I tend to find soothing, but they do bespeak God’s mercy and somehow seem to fit this impromptu praise gathering. There’s something here, in this moment of adoring the Lord of Hosts, for every last one of us, including Nurse Steadfast.

What is the point of all this? Why am I examining what is really a rather normal day in such vivid and minute detail? Because, my beloved reader, only the Lord could have brought all of us this far. You see, Tysabri is a very intensive medication and we were all initially reluctant for Naomi to take that step. I shan’t regale you with the ins and outs, for they are not very edifying, but this was not something that any one of us was really willing to embark upon. Those first few treatments were disconcerting and somewhat bleak. There was no Bible reading, no worship, a lot less prayer. But then, two things began to happen. First, the Lord began to change our hearts–to cause us to trust in Him despite fear, pain, and anguish. Then, too, the Tysabri was working and we saw that we had less to fear–or, should I say, we saw that the Lord really did have us? So then, gradually, we began to open our hearts to what God was doing and I specifically began dedicating these infusions to His service. Then, Nurse Steadfast and Nurse Song-in-Heart entered our lives… Oh, it was all Him!

And so, this is my testimony as to what God has done–how far He has brought us, from mourning to jubilation. All glory be to our Shepherd, our Healer, our Comforter…

Addendum: “To God Be the Glory” is that exquisite hymn which proclaims the Gospel in so many perfect verses. Usually, only three verses appear in hymnals, but I have heard that Fanny Crosby actually wrote ten. If anyone has access to the other seven, please let me know, for I have been unable to find them. The best versions that I have found are by Brentwood Music and the Discovery Singers.

Tears: A Poem God Gave Us

I have not written poetry prolifically since 2006 and have penned nothing at all poetic since 2010. However, God gave this to me this afternoon, and I thought I would share it here. Initially, I was thinking of the things I keep concealed behind a vast effort to live my life in Jesus–but then, as so often happens in written worship, the Lord took this piece in an entirely different direction. Be blessed!

TEARS
Our house, how it cries:
No rain upon rooftops,
No drops cascading down glass—
But a hot-water deluge,
Leaking our pent-up pain.
We gaze upon symptoms:
Clanging doors, murmuring computer, shouting dishes, silent stove,
And yet, I see weeping.

Our family, we cry:
No sharp words or fighting,
No bitter burst of tears,
But a solemn sorrow
That blankets our smile.
We use other words to descibe:
Angry and sad, frustrated and scared—
But indeed, I hear weeping.

My heart, yes, it cries:
No drenched pillow at night,
No soaked handkerchiefs by day,
But a mind that absorbs,
That clings and that grasps,
That tries and that fails to comprehend.
Working, failing, wondering,
In all this weariness,
What is the use?
People see, hear, observe:
Happy, hopeful, honoring, holding fast—
But inside, I am weeping.

“Exceedingly great and precious promises
Are given unto us.”
“To the hungry,
Every bitter thing is sweet.”
“Love bears, believes, hopes, endures…”
“In Him, we are complete.”

My heart, it will rejoice again:
No anguish of soul,
Just singing and prayer:
“Hosanna! O save!
How I trust You, O Lord…”
And a rainbow promise in the storm:
“Do not grow weary,
Do not grow weary
In well-doing.”
If others could see, they would behold:
Tears and repentance, handkerchiefs drenched—
No… Cleansing rejoicing.

My family, we will rejoice again:
No knives in our words,
Just cherishing, always:
“I love you,
We love Him.”
Others will witness:
Openness, talking, sweet words and laughter, tears and discussion—
Agape.
Ever rejoicing.

This house—oh!—it will rejoice again:
No floods from the heater and heart,
But rain atop the roof—
Drip-drop, drip-drop!
Hail pounding on porch and patio,
Thunder shaking the walls,
Tender drizzle cascading down the Prayer-Closet Tree.
We’ll hear this rolling majesty:
Water and thunder and wind and whisper-leaves—
And join that song, rejoicing.

“Steady My Heart”

Back in 2012, I decided that I desperately needed a guide-dog to further my independence and enrich my travel experience. In August of that year, I was introduced to Natasha—and she has been a joy and delight to me. However, the actual training experience was difficult. I faced challenges with cherished friends, persecution from instructors and students, condescension at the church I attended during that time, severe sleep deprivation, and a constant fear of failure, all of which led to a period of extended melancholy once I returned home.

But I have written about this. Both on Epinions and on this blog, I have exhausted myself and my readers by dissecting everything that ever went wrong at The Training Center. I have wept and whined and whimpered over institutional food, accommodations, and treatment for so long that I had nearly forgotten the many blessings that the T.C. era held. Now, I believe that the Lord has laid it on my heart to elaborate upon all the blessings of that time. This will be the next step in my healing from traumatic memories—from the spiritual crisis of 2006 as well as from the anxiety and depression of 2012. Following, then, is the post I should have written years ago—all that the Lord did, both in great ways and smaller, to fill my heart with love for Him and for His servants during that month at the Training Center. Quite obviously, the blessing of my guide-dog was a great one—everything from learning the fundamentals of guide-work and of situation-specific commands to the laughter she brought during play, bonding, etc. So, all of that goes without saying. I’m actually here to discuss what the Lord did in a purely spiritual sense through and in the midst of the trials—the rainbows following every storm, His peace and promises illuminating my darkest night.

The day before I was to leave, I had dinner at an Italian restaurant. At the time, I could never have guessed that this cuisine would form a motif of sorts while I was in training, coming to represent comfort and consolation. At that evening’s meal, Naomi, Jedidiah, and Hannah busied themselves for a few minutes in taking some last-minute pictures, so I found some worship music to listen to. Actually, “worship music” is an understatement. What I found on my iPod was a seven-minute song in a foreign language—though, shamefully, I do not know exactly which one. I have music in Dutch, German, Afrikaans, Swahili… and without a good reference point, I’m really not sure what I was listening to. I do know that the song was congregational in nature and highly anointed, and that I have never been able to find it since. When you have over ten thousand songs on your iPod and ten thousand more media files besides (sermons, audio Bibles, etc.), some of your content tends to get lost in the SHUFFLE!—pun intended… The Lord will help me to find that song in His plan, His will, and His timing. Meanwhile, I will treasure it as a blessing for that season.

When I arrived at Center headquarters, I was met by a few things that filled my heart with joy. One, and perhaps the simplest, was an enormous, blue, velvet husband pillow with a small pocket for things like a voice recorder—or a remote control, if creativity has forsaken you. Immediately, I saw the potential of this pillow—to hug during homesick times, to use as an enveloper when in times of worship, and as a sound barrier against other students’ chatter and electronics. Just prop it up correctly so you have a wall and a nightstand on one side and a huge chair-back of a pillow on the other and—voila!—sweet, silent dreams. The pillow seemed to have been made for me, so much so that I tracked one down as soon as I got back home and have cherished it ever since. Then, there were the other touches of home. Dove soap in the bathroom, much like the very kind I had brought, baked zitti al forno for dinner that first night, iced tea available on demand… All of these small gestures allowed me to feel at ease and almost served as confirmation that I was at the correct training school.

My dorm room was two doors down from that of one of the instructors. Across from my room was the laundry facility, and many evenings I was treated to the tranquil hum of the dryer as students did their weekly washing. Just a few paces down the hall was the door leading outside–a quick escape during visiting and off-campus hours!, and a less tedious way for Naomi and Hannah to make their way into the building. One afternoon, the school’s director explained that she had actually assigned rooms with much careful thought–one student needed a room with amplification equipment attached to the telephone, another had had several guide-dogs and didn’t need to be so close to an instructor… What no one could have anticipated is that the school’s two wings came to take on more personal characteristics–there was the Quiet Wing and the Social Wing, which often had loud music blaring from one of its rooms. I was at the most silent end of the Quiet Wing. And, no, I do not believe that the arrangements were solely a director’s doing. The director may have known that this would be a good placement for me based on external factors, but only the Lord could have known how much I would come to cherish the silence that that particular placement afforded.
That first evening, we were all presented with our leashes. These are not ordinary leather leashes—you can’t buy them in a pet store. Later, we were given dog booties, feeding bowls and measuring cups, grooming supplies, treat pouches and, of course, our dogs’ individually-constructed harnesses. With each piece of equipment, I felt more and more like a potential graduate, a guide-dog handler, an independent woman, a non-cane traveler. It was like taking so many steps up a steep yet scenic mountain.

Although I did not have extensive opportunities to use the Center’s amenities, my month-long place of residence did feature a computer room, a library of Braille and audio books—including a teaching series on the New Testament!—a music room, a silence-filled living room that was seldom occupied and featured the most comfortable of sofas, and a coffee machine whose beverages, though not very tasty, warmed my heart on emotionally-chilly mornings. Moments spent in these places felt so much like home away from home and even afforded occasional opportunities for worship.

Neither did I get the chance to spend two, three, and four hours in Bible study and worship as I do now. Nevertheless, I clung to my heavenly Father in every way possible. Part of our daily training took place in a small town forty-five minutes away from the Center’s headquarters. What better way to use an hour and a half than to hold in my heart “In Your Presence, O God” or songs about Communion, or to read Luke and I Corinthians and Revelation? Then, too, there was a lot of waiting involved while other students worked with their dogs—more reading! Many of the students became curious, and few things during that time gave me greater delight than to explain exactly what I was reading—to demonstrate tangibly that these words of Scripture are breath and life to me. Now, most of the instructors were less than thrilled with my reading choice—they indicated to me that they thought my carrying a two-pound book bordered on a waste of that right arm of mine and implied in their conduct toward me that they would have liked it if I had spent those round-trips chatting or listening to their music. But…

Then, there was Student Intern. She was a treasure, a gem, a jewel. In Matthew 10, Jesus said, “He who receives a prophet in the name of a prophet shall receive a prophet’s reward, and he who receives a rightous man in the name of a righteous man shall receive a righteous man’s reward. And if anyone gives to one of these little ones even a cup of cold water because he is My disciple, assuredly I say to you, he shall not lose his reward.” Well, part of this intern’s service did include furnishing all of us students with water, coffee, etc., following our work sessions—it was just was just something she and some of the instructors did. But Student Intern was far more than an instructor-in-training. I’ll never forget the days she saw my distress and talked with me about church, about having a gentle heart and being a fruitful tree, about how well Natasha and I were doing—especially on the days I feared we might not graduate, much less that we were actually doing well. Difficult though it may be to imagine, we had no Christian radio stations at this institution—I know this because Student Intern spent a tireless half-hour carefully tuning the radio in my room and listening to everything she found in hopes of presenting me with some glimpse of CCM. In a season in which most of my instructors referred disdainfully to my Bible as “that BOOK!”, Student Intern sometimes retrieved it from my room if I forgot it, usually with a sort of sad compassion in her voice as she said, “Here’s your Bible—I’ll just put it over here…” On days when she saw me frantically typing on one of the Center’s computers, she must have deduced that I was doing something urgent (indeed, I was usually writing E-mails begging for prayer), and on these occasions she would be uncommonly compassionate about pulling me away. “Lunch in five minutes… Are you coming?” Since I knew that this was not really an optional meal, but a training experience and sometimes a time for a mini-lesson, I would accompany her, only to find that she deliberately placed me at a table with other Christians. Cold, refreshing water.

So long as I am writing about servants of God, I cannot exempt the housekeeping staff from my pen-and-paper portrait of life at the Center. I met the woman who cleaned most of our rooms once and she was beyond kind. Later, I found that it was she who had placed the husband pillows in our rooms. Every evening, I tend to spread spiritual things out all around me, topping the whole bed with reminders and symbols of His glory. On any typical evening, I might cover myself with some great piece of cloth representing His covering, hold a print Bible in a worn case, keep a Braille Bible lying next to me, and have two or three prayer cloths pinned to various pillows. I carried on that tradition at the Center—the pillows, of course, being housed in my own cases, cases that were more than able to withstand my safety-pinning efforts. No, I never once damaged Center property for the sake of my spiritual reminders. In the early days of training, I used to make an effort to keep everything as tidy as possible—both so the housekeeping staff wouldn’t have to, and so that I could keep personal things in the Lord between myself and Him. One day, though, I ran out of time to perfect my surroundings and just left everything as it was. When I returned that afternoon, I not only found everything put in order, but my Bible and the other things I treasured had been handled with such careful deliberation, yet with such evident joy and artistry, that I almost wondered whether the woman who had been in to clean had known what everything was and felt spiritually about it the way I did. I can’t explain what she did—it was just tiny, almost-imperceptible nuances. For example, I believe in placing Bibles on top of other objects rather than covering them up—no journals on top of a stack of Bibles! This kind woman had stacked everything together, with my Bible on top, just the way I would have done it. Her folding mirrored mine, as did some of her other arrangements. Pillows with prayer cloths affixed to them were placed up-front and center, propped against pillows without handkerchiefs and safety-pins decorating their surfaces—things like that. “She saw this kind of thing,” you will insist. “She saw what you did and she replicated it.” How do you explain, then, the fact that I had never arranged anything like that while I was at the Center, but had kept everything hidden away where she wouldn’t have found it unless she was very, very unethical? And, even if she had found it, how do you explain those specific arrangements, folds, placements? From that point on, I stopped being quite so maniacal about keeping everything in perfect order, taking the housekeeping staff’s services as a blessing from God and something that, really, I had no time to do myself unless I was willing to get up even earlier than I already did—and for what? To prove myself? And every day that I left things in slight disarray, I returned to my room to see the same beautiful arrangements of everything that was precious to me. That child of God knew—she knew.

There was a little Italian restaurant nearby. Its name is irrelevant, but its asparagus-stuffed raviolis, complete with smoked mozarella, are not. Again, we harken back to the Italian food of the evening before I departed. These raviolis came to symbolize everything being right in the world of Ready-Writer. You see, part and parcel of my experience at the Center were the profound feelings of displacement and disorientation. I do not exaggerate when I write that I felt like a person who had been rendered suddenly unconscious, only to wake up in a foreign country—though which one would not become apparent for days. All I knew was that, all around me, a foreign language was being spoken, unusual cuisine—emotional, spiritual, and, if I’m being honest about the institution’s cooking, tangible—had been set before me, alien customs surrounded me, and I had no idea what to do in such an unfamiliar culture. Actually, if I had found myself deported to Germany or Thailand or Kuwait, I might have felt more at home more quickly. Everything at the Center, from the concrete floors to the isolation to the new ways of governing my life with Natasha to the mistreatment of other students that I saw daily was entirely estranged from the way of life I had always known. And so, I did things to center myself and to remind myself of who I still was in Christ Jesus—again, if I’m being honest with myself, I was afraid I would lose that passion for the Gospel. And so, I journaled. I described the bracelet that held spiritual value, talked about the other students and how God could use them, discussed my love for our Lord, filled entire ten-minute recorded journaling sessions with my interpretations of Scripture… And then, there were the minor earthly blessings. I kept hummus in my room, used frankincense-and-myrrh soap, and wore a waist pack with a little cross-shaped keychain dangling from it. I listened, day by day, to the recordings of family members—both those that they sent while I was at the Center and those from much earlier times. When Naomi and Hannah came to do infusions—the Center’s nurse wasn’t licensed to infuse that specific medication!—they always brought along a chai, which I held in my heart and sipped with all possible deliberation just before bed on those precious nights. When I took my meals with the other students, I usually made sure to bring at least one thing from my own supply—I would eat the rubbery spaghetti, but I brought a frapuccino to go with it, or occasionally I simply brought my own full meal. All of this somehow became encompassed in asparagus-and-smoked-mozarella-stuffed raviolis. That dish came to represent all possible gentleness, peace, tranquility, and calm, for I only ordered it when I knew that, somehow, I would survive my travels “abroad”—even if I never really assimilated into the culture.

Earthly blessings, those, but provided by God nevertheless. Another string of joys lay in that ubiquitous recorder of mine. I remember wandering the halls one day and hearing the dryer in the laundry room. Immediately, I ran to my own dorm room, retrieved the digital voice recorder from the pocket of that exquisite husband pillow, and made my way as quickly as possible back to the laundry facility, only to find an instructor there. Of course, I then had to explain that to record the dryer was to record themes of purity and wholesomeness… In so doing, a profound connection was established—if only for a time. Then, there were those chimes. They hung near the door of one of the Center’s other training facilities, reminding me of the dancing, singing chimes at home which I had always referred to as the Northern Lights for their beauty. Oh, I saw to it that Student Intern recorded the campus chimes! And when Hannah and Naomi came, as medical necessity dictated, they always had a digital voice recorder with them—Bible passages, songs, prayers, old books… But the recorder wasn’t always merely for recordings. Once, my recorder’s alarm went off while I was in the van and, while I fiddled with the machine in an attempt to silence it, the entire backseat was treated to a minute and a half of Paul Wilbur’s nine-minute rendering of “In Your Presence, O God”. Yes, that recorder was a blessing.

So was the instructor’s radio. Not always—certainly not! I never did develop a passion for the popular and hard-rock music that seemed to run rampant during that time. But there was one day when, while browsing through stations, the instructor accidentally stopped on Christian music. She didn’t keep it there long, but I had heard thirty seconds of Kari Jobe’s “Steady My Heart”, and that was enough. I had not heard Christian music on any radio in weeks; that briefest of intervals helped me to see that I was not alone, not forsaken in a place in which even my church attendance was an anomaly. Then, on 17 August, the day I had received the Holy Spirit ten years earlier, Instructor of Mine decided to listen to country music. When a Christian-oriented song, entitled “I Saw God Today”, played, she made no move to change it. I think it must have been the Holy Spirit keeping her hands on the steering wheel, because her silence and failure to change the station were out-of-character for her. And so, I sat back and let references to the things of the Lord wash over me, filling some of the emptiness I felt and lighting up the darkness around me.

But do you know what might just have been greater than the radio and the recorder? The rain! I was the only student who relished walking in it, who cherished every raindrop and every clap of thunder. One day, when the others decided to seek refuge from the rain, I requested special permission to go out and work with Natasha in the downpour. Instructor of Mine brought an umbrella, under whose shelter I was a very reluctant participant. Personally, I think that getting soaked—not sprinkled upon, but so drenched that you need to change your clothes and wring out your wet outfit—is one of life’s greatest pleasures and never worth missing out on for the sake of convention. As it was, I did need a towel when I arrived back at the Center. You know why this was so special? Because I experience in the rain and snow what most of you experience when you see a rainbow, or a fabulous sunset, or a towering tree, or the moon and stars—I witness God’s majestic creation. So, that rain-walk was a heart-saturating moment for me. As was the time I tripped and fell, believe it or not. I was not paying attention during one of Natasha’s supervised work sessions, and sleep-deprivation caused me to stumble over my own feet. I wasn’t hurt—a tad bit scraped up, perhaps, but not seriously injured. And do you know what I thought even as my shoes-on-asphault contact gave way to knees-on-graveled-dirt? “Oh, yes, kneeling before Him—always the place to be. And this soil, now running through my fingers and down my shins, is yet one more moment of His creation. What a wholesome fall this is!”

From tangibles to God’s creation… what comes next? Do you know, my beloved readers? The things of the Lord!—they are what spring from this journal of joy. You see, He was so close to me during that time. Since I didn’t have hours to read and study His Word, the moments I did have became more precious, and I found myself studying each verse in more minute detail. In a month in which church attendance and especially Communion were rare and elusive, I came to delight in both in a new way. Actually, I take private Communion every evening—then, now, and as long as the Lord convicts me to do so—but grape juice was scarce. Having real Communion elements—grape juice rather than water or sugary grape drink—took on new meaning and significance, as did songs about remaining strong in Jesus, staying true to who He had made me, and even a few worship anthems about Communion itself. John 1:43-50 wrapped itself around my heart then and I have never lost sight of it, even to this day. Like opportunities to take Communion, fellowship with other believers was rare, so I delighted in it all the more when it did happen—all someone had to do was mention that his church had a special outreach ministry, and my heart filled with joy at having found a brother in Christ.

Oh, the joy! When I couldn’t read the Word due to time constraints, I read memoirs like DANCING WITH MAX, an excellent book about grace in which the author describes the joys and blessings of raising a son on the autism spectrum—more a Christian devotional about patience and love, though, than a typical disability/parenting memoir. Or that book called CELEBRATE JESUS, relating the stories behind many common praise and worship choruses. Not for one moment, not for one millisecond, did the Lord ever forsake me—I always knew His presence, His nearness. And in it all, even during the worst of trials, there was joy, joy, joy! Joy so great and extensive that people always asked me why I was in such an unrestrainedly enthusiastic mood. Joy that elevated simple pleasures to lofty heights. Joy that caused me to cry out, “Hosanna! Hosanna!” at every turn. “Hosanna” in both senses of the word—”hallelujah, praise Him”, yes, but also, “O, save!” Keep me safe, for You are able…

Then, there were His gifts. You know, the gifts of the Holy Spirit are always given according to God’s will, and often distributed according to need. There may be more need for the gift of healing in a place of illness, for example, than for a person to only pray in the Spirit—but there may be more need for the gift of tongues than healing in, say, a country that has never heard the Gospel, if some of the inhabitants are to hear God’s Word proclaimed in a language that they can understand (see Acts II). The same thing applies to the gift of discernment—or, as I Corinthians XII calls it, “the discerning of spirits”. All I know is that, halfway through most meals, I often sensed that there was something spiritually amiss in my surroundings, and particularly as it pertained to a specific faculty member. There was a profound sense of oppression, and it was often at these times that I felt I needed to pray more fervently or to leave the premises. Later, I learned a bit more about some of the circumstances surrounding this faculty member and, sure enough, it included condescention and emotional mistreatment of another student, as well as some spiritual confusion. God had been protecting me and showing me how to pray. Discernment in action!—and I was so very grateful for it. But, you know, that gift isn’t given only to protect us from spiritually-compromising situations—it can sometimes be used to help us see our brothers and sisters in Christ, or to simply see things a little more clearly through His eyes. During the third week of training, all of us traveled to the state’s largest and most populated city. While strolling sidewalks and making my way under the overhangs of various shops, I inhaled the fragrance of spices and leather goods, exotic foods and beautifully unique knickknacks and suddenly began to imagine the people behind all those doors. I prayed for many of them, rejoiced at the thought of those who knew of our wonderful Lord, and really prayed for the Lord to sustain and fill those whom I thought might be feeling empty or despondent. Time and again, I found myself thinking, “Oh, you behind that metal-and-glass frame, whoever you are, Jesus loves you so much!” It was a glorious experience, and one I am actually hard-pressed to describe adequately. More of His grace.

And His holiness! I remember one day being given exquisite, glorious news from Hannah and Naomi. Then, due to a very minor injury that nevertheless precluded Natasha and I working together, I was given the day off. Off, to rest and sleep more deeply than I had in weeks. Off, to allow worship music to float through my heart. Off, to take a meal in semi-solitude. And especially, as all of this was going on, to find that Isaiah ch. Vi, was penetrating all those barriers I had established and melting my heart—every word about the seraphim and their cries of “Holy!” That time of having Isaiah’s awesome vision impressed upon my heart stayed with me, even until I arrived home, and during those first few days of re-orienting myself to home life, I found worship music that bespoke His holiness. Without it, you know, I could never have survived…

What am I saying? I’m saying that God has the power, and the love, mercy, compassion, and faithfulness, to truly work all things together for good for those who love Him. I’m saying that, despite the anguish that prevailed during and after my time at the Center, God never did abandon me—and He will never abandon you either, no matter what you may be going through. “Even when it hurts,/ Even when it’s hard, / Even when it all just falls apart…” Then we all must run to Him, the Binder of our wounds and “healer of [our] scars”, trusting in His protection and provision even when we neither see His face nor hear His voice nor feel His presence. His love endures forever—after many long years of wondering why my time at the Center had to culminate in so prolonged a period of heartache, I know that He was, is, and always will be my Rock, my Deliverer, my place of refuge, my strength, my song, and my salvation. “And that my soul knows very well…”

Addendum: Although I have been creating a whirlwind of worship music that must resemble a mixed metaphor to some of you, the title for this piece is taken from that thirty-second clip of a song with which the Lord so richly blessed me. Find Kari Jobe’s “Steady My Heart” on the album THE ACOUSTIC SESSIONS.