Telling Stories Around the Campfire

Last weekend we went camping at Ludington State Park, and I found myself fascinated by watching the flames leaping in our fire pit.  One moment, I could just imagine an angel praying (see the cross at the top?!),  and at the next I could see a hungry lion rearing his head for a mighty roar!  It reminded me the 1960s when I was in graduate school studying clinical psychology, training to give the Rorschach, which was the most widely used projective test at that time. Have you ever taken one? It was developed by a Swiss psychologist, Hermann Rorschach, and consisted of a series of black and white ink blots on cards which the client was supposed to interpret. What do you see here? I see a surprised dragon with fire coming out his nostrils.  How about this one? To me, there’s a genie emerging from the flames. How about this one? On the far left, do you see a scary yellow and orange face with a triangular eye and oblong mouth, or do you notice more the white image in front of the face that looks like a horned women with her hands on her hips? Or …close to the right can you see a scowling lizard-like creature with a beaked nose, white-tipped horns and a long, white eye?  There are so many ways of interpreting what we see, aren’t there? As we sat around the fire, we decided to share stories. I can see why “ghost” stories are popular with campers, because the flames leap and flicker, creating eerie shapes that more often than not do conjure up images of ghosts or goblins.However, we chose to share stories from our past, and it was really fun! Alan told about his Uncle Bud having an entire room full of tennis shoes folks could borrow so they wouldn’t hurt their feet on the pebbly lake bottom when they went swimming. Joel shared the glorious sights and sounds he remembered from hiking the White Mountains with his housemates when he lived in Boston.  I reminisced about spending the night with my childhood best friend, Brenda, and her grandparents, “Ma and Pa,” at their cottage on the St. Mary’s River. I loved waking up in the morning with the smell of Ma cooking breakfast and Pa sitting at the kitchen table, reading his Bible and praying. Brenda whispered to me that when Pa was young, he’d been involved with Al Capone, but by the time I knew him, he had become a Christian and was the picture of everything I’d always wished for in a grandpa! (Both my grandfathers died before I was born.)              Of course, after the fire has burned down to glowing embers,  there’s nothing so fun as roasting hot dogs…unless it’s toasting marshmallows! Just like leaping flames or ink blot images, we each take what we see and try to make sense of it, don’t we? I think the same goes for stories. Some stories are written with the morals obvious, like Aesop’s fables, but most of the time, we take in the stories and then try to figure out what they mean to us.Do you have a favorite story? My very favorite “story” (if you will, although it’s a true story) comes from the Bible. It tells about Jesus and how he came to rescue us from our sins. Have you heard that story? Have you figured out what it means to you? Although affliction cometh not forth of the dust, neither doth trouble spring out of the ground; Yet man is born unto trouble, as the sparks fly upward. I would seek unto God, and unto God would I commit my cause” (Job 5:6-8).

“Tell Me the Story of Jesus” (~Fanny Crosby, 1880)

  1. Tell me the story of Jesus,
    Write on my heart every word;
    Tell me the story most precious,
    Sweetest that ever was heard.
    Tell how the angels in chorus,
    Sang as they welcomed His birth,
    “Glory to God in the highest!
    Peace and good tidings to earth.”
  2. Fasting alone in the desert,
    Tell of the days that are past,
    How for our sins He was tempted,
    Yet was triumphant at last.
    Tell of the years of His labor,
    Tell of the sorrow He bore;
    He was despised and afflicted,
    Homeless, rejected and poor.
  3. Tell of the cross where they nailed Him,
    Writhing in anguish and pain;
    Tell of the grave where they laid Him,
    Tell how He liveth again.
    Love in that story so tender,
    Clearer than ever I see;
    Stay, let me weep while you whisper,
    “Love paid the ransom for me.”
  4. Tell how He’s gone back to heaven,
    Up to the right hand of God:
    How He is there interceding
    While on this earth we must trod.
    Tell of the sweet Holy Spirit
    He has poured out from above;
    Tell how He’s coming in glory
    For all the saints of His love.
  5. (Refrain):
    Tell me the story of Jesus,
    Write on my heart every word;
    Tell me the story most precious,
    Sweetest that ever was heard.

 For there is one God, and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus; Who gave himself a ransom for all, to be testified in due time.
(1 Timothy 2:5-6)
 

Would You Like to be Like the Men Who Built America?

After our visit to the Biltmore Estate, I wanted to learn more about the Vanderbilt family, and I discovered a really fascinating (but gut-wrenching) 5-hour historical documentary mini series from 2012 called The Men Who Built America. The series has an 8.7 rating on IMDb, won a lot of awards, and is really worth watching, if for no other reason than to inspire you to avoid oppressing those who are under you, in the work space…or anywhere else, for that matter!The Men Who Built America traces the transformation of America from the post Civil War Era to World War 1, focusing in particular on the lives of four incredibly driven, innovative, and wealthy men: Cornelius Vanderbilt (who connected America via ships and railroads),  Andrew Carnegie (who developed the steel industry, opening the way for bridges, skyscrapers and city scapes not only in America but throughout the world, making him one of the richest men on earth),  John D. Rockerfeller (who founded Standard Oil and holds the record for  being the richest man who’s ever lived, with a net worth of 392 billion [adjusted for inflation], and  John P. Morgan (wizard of corporate finance and industrial consolidation in America).  At the end, the series also touched on the life of Henry Ford (founder of Ford Motor Company who developed the assembly line technique for mass production). I was mesmerized and horrified at the same time. The first four men were innovative geniuses who worked ceaselessly to build industrial empires. Their work did profit America as a whole, but they were also ruthless cut throats who became incomprehensible rich by oppressing the poor laborers who worked for them.  Although they became amazing philanthropists near the end of their lives, I found myself feeling frustrated and outraged by their abuse of power. Why didn’t they share their wealth with the thousands (millions?) who worked for them?  In stark contrast, Henry Ford paid his employees about 2.5 times the going wage, provided safe working conditions, and established the 5-day, 40-hour work week. Ford still became plenty rich, but he was so much better as an employer! As the stories unfolded, it occurred to me that the richest men were so busy competing with each other and oppressing everyone that it didn’t even seem like they were enjoying their lives. Today is no different! If every business owner paid their employees a living wage and shared profits more equitably, they could still be wealthy enough to enjoy an abundant life while providing abundant lives for their employees too. How is it that as a nation we’re so consumed by greed?  Can we change the men who are building America now? Can we do better, one employer at a time??? As a nation, can we vote in legislation that provides a living wage for every employee who works a 40-hour week?

Surely men of low degree are vanity, and men of high degree are a lie: to be laid in the balance, they are altogether lighter than vanity. Trust not in oppression, and become not vain in robbery: if riches increase, set not your heart upon them” (Psalm 62:9-10).

Lessons from Louise’s Kitchen

In Black Mountain, North Carolina,
there’s a perfectly adorable breakfast spot known as Louise’s Kitchen. It has a lot of things that make it unique: five-inch sections of fettuccine that they use for stirring your coffee…playing cards to designate your order number…inspirational thoughts to brighten your day…a pick-your-own, self-serve beverage counter, and a great menu with great prices for food with flair!  It’s a hit with everybody, and the place was jammed by the time we left.(So come early if you don’t want to have to wait!)  I was luxuriating in the ambience and yummy food,  when I noticed that our waitress looked like she might have a hard life, but she was an absolutely stellar waitress, and her genuine warmth really attracted me.  She was (IS) obviously an over-comer, and it didn’t take long to figure out why! Thank you, dear waitress, for letting your light shine! The world needs you!

Do all things without murmurings and disputings: That ye may be blameless and harmless, the sons of God, without rebuke, in the midst of a crooked and perverse nation, among whom ye shine as lights in the world; Holding forth the word of life” (Philippians 2:14-16).

“This Little Light of Mine”

“This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine
This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine,
This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine,
Let it shine, let it shine, let it shine

Hide it under a bushel, no!
I’m gonna let it shine
Hide it under a bushel, no!
I’m gonna let it shine,
Hide it under a bushel, no!
I’m gonna let it shine, let it shine,
Let it shine, let it shine

Don’t let Satan blow it out
I’m gonna let it shine
Don’t let Satan blow it out
I’m gonna let it shine
Don’t let Satan blow it out
I’m gonna let it shine,
Let it shine, let it shine, let it shine

Let it shine til Jesus comes
I’m gonna let it shine
Let it shine til Jesus comes
I’m gonna let it shine,
Let it shine til Jesus comes
I’m gonna let it shine
Let it shine, let it shine, let it shine?”

(All photos from Louise’s Kitchen in Black Mountain, North Carolina)

Rise Up, My Love (235): The Foreshadowing of Spiritual Union

Song of Solomon 7:6 “How fair and how pleasant art thou, O love, for delights!” Verse six is the pivotal point in this one particular ode. It is as if the husband concludes his observations with a final seal of approving commendation that also transitions him from simply observing her beauties (verses 1-5)…to beginning to remember the pleasure of experiencing them (verse 6)…to declaring that he will enjoy them again (verses 7-8).

And here, perhaps it would be good to sit and rest a while, savoring this verse as the groom reflected on thoughts of his wife. Synonyms from other translations and commentators describing the husband’s feelings for his wife provide much room for meditation: “How beautiful; how entrancing; how charming; how pleasing.” “Good.” “Gracious.” “Delectable maiden, with your delights.” “Daughter of delights.” “My delight”… “soft, delicate, delightful, luxurious…”  Last June our family just picked cherries from a neighboring orchard…sweet black cherries, sun-sweetened at the tops of the trees. Some years we’re able to harvest big handfuls just by standing on the ground, but last year we had to climb way up high on very tall ladders in order to find many cherries. But…oh, how sweet! This verse is like those wonderful, hard-to-come–by cherries, so stop to taste each one as if it were a plump fruit. Indeed, biting into each adjective gives a spurt of spiritual sweetness like cherry juice!   Go back and read the list again slowly, meditating on each with the understanding that this is the way our Heavenly Lover feels about us as his bride! Truly? Does my Lord find my spiritual openness and submission to him as beautiful… entrancing… delectable?? Wow! It seems unimaginable that I can bring such pleasure to my Lord!

The other thing that may take some mental and spiritual energy is understanding and appropriating the distinctly physical nature of this verse. Although many verses in The Song of Solomon are hotly contested, this verse is unanimously agreed upon: It is a direct reference to the delights of lovemaking. Frankly, to many people, sex is an embarrassing, uncomfortable subject. Young children, especially, sometimes express concern that the whole idea seems “yucky.”  Can you remember when you first heard about sex? I’ll never forget the first time it was explained to me. I was twelve and had just recently become a Christian when my older sister sat down and told me the story behind “the birds and the bees.” My first thought was, “How awful! I’m sure my Sunday school teacher (who was also my spiritual mother and mentor) would never do that!” My husband remembers (at about the same age: prepubescent) thinking a girl’s body seemed “gross.”

These are probably not atypical responses. We are taught our whole lives to be modest and “keep your hands off!” All of a sudden we’re told that within marriage two people are to become totally uninhibited, that our bodies are nothing to be ashamed of or kept hidden, and that loving “hands on” is good, not bad. How does one make the transition?   As with so much of life, I think it is something that must be accepted and acted upon by faith. Our world is so tainted by pornography and sexually perverse practices that sex has become a commonplace topic with a terrible reputation. The wonders of a happy marital relationship are not put on public display; they are sacred and private, and parents don’t usually discuss sexual issues with young children lest they be defrauded (except as they need instruction for their own protection and safety).

However, the world seems to think of nothing else. Immoral sexual behavior is so much in the news and gossip that sex seems synonymous with sin. From the whispers and snickers and innuendoes that all children and young people are inevitably exposed to in our culture, “sinless sex” seems like an oxymoron, and the ideas of purity and privilege simply aren’t championed. Nevertheless, the teaching of the Bible is clear that “Marriage is honorable in all, and the bed undefiled” (Hebrews 13:4).

As an innocent young person, the idea of the purity of sex within marriage needs to be accepted by faith. However, just as usually happens in the experience of salvation…appropriate emotions generally follow. In fact, the usual pattern is that maintaining sexual purity before marriage becomes one of a young person’s greatest challenges. Once people mature and fall in love, by some “magic,” their attitudes towards the physical closeness that leads to intercourse radically change, and the desire to become one rather than two becomes an overwhelming passion if not severely restrained by “bringing into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:5).   Even so, by some sacred mystery, the pure passion of Christ to make us one with him, even as he is one with the Father (John 17), is a spiritual truth that we accept by faith and mature into as we grow up in Christ…learning at first by shadows and types and visions through dark looking glasses…but which will someday become our sole passion when we behold him face to face. This is not a physical experience; it is a spiritual experience…something that far exceeds but is only mysteriously suggested by physical union.

Easy Caramel Sauce for Dipping Fruit

Serving fresh fruit for dessert in the summer is one of the best ways I can think of to promote healthy nutrition while still catering to the sweet teeth most of us inherited through no fault of our own but as part of our DNA. (Okay, so it’s really a learned behavior, but most of us have learned very well.) One way to dress up fruit for a special occasion is by serving dipping sauce. Melted chocolate or caramel are probably the two favorites.  A simple way to make caramel sauce is to boil together 1/4 cup milk, 1/2 cup butter, and 1 cup brown sugar (packed) for just a few minutes until the sugar completely dissolves and the sauce thickens. (This serves 4-8.)        An even easier way to serve one person is to place 9 caramels in a bowl with 2 tablespoons of milk or cream, and pop it in the microwave for a 45 seconds. Stir vigorously until smooth, and serve immediately! It goes great with apples, pears, and bananas…and probably any other type of fruit you like! Did I mention ice cream? No? That’s good, because even though it’s great on ice cream, that’s probably too fattening!

 My son, eat thou honey, because it is good; and the honeycomb, which is sweet to thy taste: So shall the knowledge of wisdom be unto thy soul: when thou hast found it, then there shall be a reward, and thy expectation shall not be cut off” (Proverbs 24:13-14).

The Inimitable Biltmore Estate

At 178,926 square feet, the Biltmore—the Vanderbilt family’s 8,000 acre estate— ranks as America’s largest privately owned home, and I’ve wanted to visit for about 50 years, particularly after hearing the rumor that we’re related by marriage to the Vanderbilts (many cousins-removed ago). In the early 2000’s (at the height of our family’s musical ministry), I was negotiating with the Biltmore to sing gospel music there one Sunday afternoon           (which they still do, by the way),  although one of my closest friends ended up planning her wedding for that same weekend, and being in the wedding preempted everything else! Nevertheless, the mystique of America’s grandest estate nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains hovered like mist in the back of my mind, and last May, after visiting many of the gorgeous châteaux along the Loire River in France, several of which were the French Renaissance inspirations for the Biltmore,    such as  Château de Blois,        Château de Chenonceau,         and Château de Chambord,         I realized that a trip to the Biltmore was still on my unconscious bucket list. So, when we attended a conference this May just 15 miles from the Biltmore, you can imagine my excitement to see this romantic tribute  to America’s Gilded Age!  Yesterday I shared photos from the gardens (in conjunction with thoughts for pondering how to overcome your past and fulfill your potential),  but today I want to share a few photos from the inside of this grand home,  which would have made a worthy location for Downton Abbey! The Biltmore Estate has 250 rooms,  including 33 bedrooms, 43 bathrooms, 65 fireplaces,  a dining room table that can seat up to 64 guests,   and many novelties for the 19th century,  such as  a 70,000-gallon heated indoor swimming pool  and one of the nation’s first bowling alleys to be installed in a private residence. Only half of George Vanderbilt’s collection of 22,000 books can fit in his library, and while we were visiting, their was a special exhibition of costumes  and information related to movies that have been made  from some of the many first-edition classic books owned by the Vanderbilts. The Vanderbilt family still live in and operate their estate,  but unlike many European grand estates and palaces, the Vanderbilts allow visitors to take photographs of all the home’s treasures,  including many beautifully preserves tapestries  and gorgeous paintings.  On a sunny day, like the day we visited,  one could easily spend their entire day touring the home,  enjoying lunch at one of their stable-turned restaurant venues,  and exploring their vast gardens.  Although we loved visiting, Alan and I both left thinking
how happy we are to live in our snug little “Tanglewood Cottage.”  I’m not even sure “I want a mansion, just over the hilltop.” Do you?  Actually, I don’t care where I live, just as long as it’s with Jesus!

Jesus said, “As the Father hath loved me, so have I loved you: continue ye in my love. If ye keep my commandments, ye shall abide in my love; even as I have kept my Father’s commandments, and abide in his love” (John 15:9-10).

“Mansion Over The Hilltop”

“I’m satisfied with just a cottage below
A little silver and a little gold
But in that city where the ransomed will shine
I want a gold one that’s silver lined.

Don’t think me poor or deserted or lonely
I’m not discouraged I’m heaven bound.
I’m but a pilgrim in search of the city
I want a mansion, a harp and a crown.

I’ve got a mansion just over the hilltop
In that bright land where we’ll never grow old
And some day yonder we will never more wander
But walk on streets that are purest gold.” (Ira Stanphill)

(All photos, except the four related to our trip to France last May, were taken this May on our visit the the Biltmore Estate, near Ashville, North Carolina.)

Quotable Quotes from Don’t Settle for Safe

Tired of shadowboxing with your past? Feel like you’ll never overcome your present circumstances? Looking for inspiration to move forward and unleash the potential greatness inside? Don’t Settle for Safe is a classic empowerment book, geared for women and based on the life of Sarah Jakes Roberts, who overcame a teenage pregnancy and a failed marriage. Today she is not only the mother of six, she’s a bestselling author and media personality who works alongside her husband, Toure Roberts, in a ministry to Hollywood artists and professionals at One Church LA.  Speaking of greatness, I’m going to give you a long list of my favorite quotes from her book interspersed with photos from America’s largest privately owned estate, the Biltmore.  If her thoughts are a home run for you, consider reading the entire book, which is fresh off the press! “Your power to overcome is in your willingness to not just anticipate but embrace the unpredictability of life.”  (I believe true empowerment comes from God, but when we embrace God, then we’re no longer afraid to embrace an unpredictable future.)           “Your present holds more promise than anything that used to be.”  “Growth is produced through sacrifice…the gift of growing requires letting go…Letting go is trusting that we can carry the lessons from our past in our heart without constantly replaying the pain in our head.” (Spiritual growth comes from “abiding in the Vine” [Jesus], which also requires a certain amount of letting go in trust.)                                                  “Excuses are comfort zones.” “Name your pain.”   “Instant gratification often results in long-term disappointment.”   “What are your weeds? What thoughts and behaviors are keeping you from enjoying the full beauty of the heart God has given you? Your willingness to seek them out [and repent of them*]  will transform your heart,  producing compassion and creating opportunities to extend grace to others. The only way to remove the weeds is to combat them with humility. The fruit of such examination is not constant shame; it’s simple humility and grace.”  “Our greatest accomplishment comes when we have the ability to master our soul.” “If we’re going to commit to achieving a positive outlook on things that once devastated us, we will have to believe that the worst things that happened to us have the potential to work for our benefit.” “The problem with our teenage years is that often our observations are valid, but our perspective is very limited. It’s not until we’re older that we begin to tap into the compassion necessary to learn from those observations.”  “The last thing you want is to create a life that has been built on fear.”  “Your freedom cannot be contingent on whether or not  you’re able to convince others to embark upon the journey with you. It’s up to you to follow the path that leads to your liberation. Freedom and peace can inspire change within your family.”  “Combining your work and faith with His plan for your life creates momentum that transforms everything that should have stopped you into fuel that propels you into a destiny far greater than you could have imagined.”  “Did you know that your obstacles were assigned by God?”  “Confidence in God’s plan helps us to draw the conclusion that if we did not receive something it is because we did not need it.” “Whether your family was perfectly constructed or undeniably fractured, the people in your life did the best they could. You may be thinking to yourself, Well, that wasn’t enough! I’m telling you it was. Some parents are dealing with insecurities so great that all they can do is self-sabotage anything or anyone that comes close to them. You have to come to a place where you forgive your parents for not providing everything you needed.”  “As a match needs friction to produce a flame, the challenges you’ve faced are the friction you need to produce a light that shines for the world to see.”  “When you have encounters with true friends, you feel both humbled and empowered to do what’s right. I know from experience, though that what we need is not always what we desire.”  “Loyalty based on your position is dangerous because the one constant promise of life is change…The best type of loyalty comes from a friend who is loyal to who you are.”  “Unforgiveness will transform you from a victim to a villain.” “Hurt people hurt people…our own pain blinds us from seeing others’ pain.”  “People who do bad things are not always evil; often they are broken.”  “Closure is never about another person. It is reconciliation with one’s self” (and I would add, “and with God”).  “This is who I am. This is where I’ve come from. I am evidence that broken crayons still color and there is still life inside of you.”  “After dropping fifteen pounds the first moth, it became clear that not only was I capable of losing weight, but I was also capable of taking control of my normal and creating something better.”  “Your life is the road map that will help other people avoid detours that delay on their road to manifesting a destiny greater than those moments that have ailed them. Don’t throw it away because you don’t like the marks that nave been made. Fold it neatly, tuck it away in your heart, and preserve its beauty because someone is going to need evidence that even lost people find their way home.”  “From the depths of your sorrow, God wants to manifest blessings that far outweigh any hurt you’ve experienced.”  “Regret robs you of the possibilities that exist in the present. You don’t get do overs in life because you don’t need them. You needed to mess up. You had to make those mistakes. Your heart had to be broken. You needed to lose your way.”  “Our greatest responsibility and challenge in the quest for higher thinking is daring to find light in our darkest situations.”  “When you begin to truly expect and trust the love of God, it significantly changes your paradigm. I want for you to live in a palace of expectations.” “I pray that this book reminds you in spite of what you’ve gone through that you are still lighter than darkness.”  “The first thing to understand about purpose is that it will always be rooted in service toward the betterment of humanity…Your purpose is the answer to a problem that plagues our world.”  “You must be willing to let go of the dream you have for your life so that He can give you His plans.”  “It is the mystery of your potential that makes it clear God’s thought are higher than ours.”  “God never takes away anything from us that He doesn’t return with interest.”  “We foolishly believe that the best way to safeguard our heart is to avoid setting high expectations. You cannot avoid disappointment by becoming comfortable with low expectations.”  “People who have been hurt cheat other people out of the sense of security that stabilizes a relationship.”  “The only way our love reaches perfection is through handing our heart over to God and asking Him to show us our fears. Don’t give another person permission to hold your heart unless you know their hands belong to God.”  “You should never enter into a relationship with someone you would not want to become.”  “I realized that my tomorrow held more promise than my past held pain.” “You’ll feel like an outcast, but it’s okay. Great people are never fully understood, just admired.”  “Find Him in everything you do. May every word out of your mouth be a reflection of Him. That’s how you will become a light that the world cannot diffuse. When your light burns for Him the world will have to take notice.”  “I’ve discovered that growth requires a discipline to do what most cannot because they are unwilling to risk discomfort. We stay in relationship that damage us, remain in positions that stifle us, and maintain mentalities that don’t progress us. I wanted to break the strongholds that exist when we experience negativity. And to challenge women to see the good that’s come from the most difficult experiences…We must each commit to constantly live life searching for the strength to face the vulnerabilities that make us uncomfortable to become unstoppable The only thing standing in your way right now is you.”Now unto him that is able to do exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that works in us, unto him be glory in the church by Christ Jesus throughout all ages, world without end. Amen” (Ephesians 3:20-21).

*I am editorializing here