Friday, May 27, 2022


Being around young grandchildren reminds one of all the challenges of learning to read. When we recently visited our pre-school granddaughter across the state, we quizzed her from a box of phonics cards. As she looked at each simple word, she mouthed the alphabet sounds and finally would say the whole word with a big smile. Her boy cousin, just 4 ½, isn't far behind. He goes to pre-school, but when visiting at our home, sometimes gravitates toward an old classroom phonics chart his grandpa picked up at a yard sale.

I'd never spring on them some of the obtuse “classics” I had to read in college! The “readers” I had in my childhood—like “Look, Spot!” and “Dick sees Jane”--gradually prepared me for the killer classes I had in Humanities and English lit. I remember the quarter I enrolled in Victorian lit. The assigned novels were about 4,567 pages long (just kidding) and the sentences went on for pages (just kidding, again). “Period” literature? I searched for the periods! The sentences were comma-heavy.

When young in faith, I had the same attitude toward parts of the Bible, like the prophets. They weren't easy-reads, like the Gospels. Their tone and historical background were part of the challenge in understanding them. I remember in particular this passage from Isaiah that caused amusement and consternation. What did it possibly mean!

For precept must be upon precept, precept upon precept; line upon line, line upon line; here a little, there a little, and there a little.” (28:10)

I learned the prophet was trying to scold his people for being as immature spiritually as barely-weaned babies were, physically. At that time, because of national arrogance, apathy and sin, the people were headed toward destruction and imprisonment by a foreign nation. Despite Isaiah's warnings, they didn't turn back to God.

Yikes! A pretty heavy application point to connect to grammar and phonics! But is it possible that when we get slack about reading and meditating on scripture, we're apt to slip back into the ideas typical of the spiritually immature? Like the (not-in-the-Bible) saying, “God helps those who help themselves.” Wrong. He helps those who admit their helplessness and turn in trust and humility to Him.

Spiritual maturity and Biblical literacy are like good friends. They help each other. But the most important connection point is the Holy Spirit, helping us understand what's being said and how to apply it to our lives. We all start somewhere. Let's hear it for parents who start spiritual training early. At first it may seem as bland as “Spot runs after the ball.” Just think back to when that sentence was hard to read (if you can!) and thank God for the folks who taught you to read--and the others who introduced you to the Greatest Book of all.

Friday, May 20, 2022


Hydrangeas—especially the blue-hued blooms--are my favorite flower. But I am not their favorite gardener. The profuse bushes of decades earlier in this home have withered and died. Even healthy-looking transplants from greenhouses failed to thrive. Learning that insufficient soil acid might be the problem, I stirred concoctions into the dirt—to no avail. I was left with sticks and distant memories of the blue and purple pompom flowers that once ballooned on the shady side of our home. Disappointed, we planted some strawberries there, and I put a bouquet of fake hydrangea in the guest bedroom.

My horticultural ignorance brought to mind the advice I heard as a young adult, seeking to grow in my faith. I read my Bible, kept a journal, and had a prayer list. I later sat under some great expository preachers (two are still living in their late 80s--and still preaching!). But I wish I'd had more practical spiritual encouragement, like I found in a recent book by a longtime writer-speaker friend.

It's Lucinda Secrest McDowell's Soul Strong: 7 Keys to a Vibrant Life (New Hope Publishers). I met her long ago (okay, forty-plus years) at Wheaton Graduate School when we were both emerging into our early careers. Now she's a well-known speaker and author of many Christian non-fiction books which authentically and winsomely help scriptural truth bloom through practical examples. This book discusses seven character qualities of a vibrant faith journey: Live loved, be authentic, dwell deep, pray always, overcome pain, extend kindness, and share stories.

I hesitate to highlight even one of those qualities to the exclusion of others, but the one about overcoming pain spoke deeply to me. (Yes, me--who allowed beloved hydrangea plants to suffer!) Lucinda and I have learned, in our own ways, that pain is the unwelcome but necessary agent of growing deeper in faith. She admitted once telling a friend, “I don't really trust someone without a limp” (p. 105). By that she meant:.those who have been broken or wounded live differently from those for whom life is a constant picnic. We don't offer pat answers. We listen for what is going on behind the spoken words. We move forward each day even if our healing process is not yet complete. Our limp serves as a metaphor to show that we are real, imperfect people who have learned hard things by following God through suffering.

Lucinda took her book title from Psalm 138:3 (ESV): “On the day I called, you answered me; my strength of soul you increased.” Written with blank spaces for personal or group contemplation, it's a fresh look at growing in Christ and serving Him. Or, to borrow the title from a devotional book by Eugene Peterson (of The Message paraphrase fame): “a long obedience in the same direction.”

By the way, Lucinda also enjoys hydrangeas. She has a plant at her home in New England, and wrote about it here: Maybe It’s Time to Sit in the Shade – Lucinda Secrest McDowell

Friday, May 13, 2022


This cross sits on a bluff between the towns
of Omak and Okanogan in north-central 
Washington state. See footnote for a
You-tube telling its history.
A monthly feature on a hymn of the faith.

We often think of hymn writers as older or mature people, especially when they compose verses about the most sacred event of our faith: the crucifixion of Christ. Not so with this hymn, “Beneath the Cross of Jesus.” Its author, Elizabeth Clephane, was a frail young woman born to a Scottish sheriff's family. A quiet little girl, she was always composing verse and absorbed in books, and the top scholar in her class at school. Despite her chronic ailments, she reached out to those who were suffering and impoverished. Her compassion for the needy led to her nickname as “The Sunbeam of Melrose,” Melrose being a suburb of Edinburgh. One time she and her sisters sold their horse and carriage to raise money for a needy family. She wrote only eight hymns in her short lifetime before dying at age 39. But they reflected her diligent study of the Bible through her Presbyterian roots.

Her poems could have faded into history after her death—but here the story picks up momentum with the evangelistic campaigns of two Americans: Dwight L. Moody and his song leader Ira Sankey. About five years after her death, Moody and Sankey were traveling between crusade events in Scotland. Sankey stopped to buy a newspaper before they boarded the train. As he idly flipped through it, he noticed her poem titled “The Ninety and Nine.” He tried to interest Moody in it, but the evangelist was too busy preparing his sermon. So Sankey cut out the poem and put it in his pocket.

That evening, Moody spoke from Luke 15 about Jesus as the Good Shepherd. When he finished, he turned to Sankey and asked him to sing an appropriate solo. Sankey's mind went blank. Then he remembered the little poem in his vest pocket. He pulled it out, placed it on his little folding organ, and quickly prayed for divine help. Striking a chord, he began to sing, with the entire song coming to him note by note. When he finished, Moody was in tears. Sankey was in tears. The Scottish audience was visibly moved and many responded to the call of Christ. There's more: during Moody and Sankey's campaign in Scotland, two of her sisters were in the audience. Imagine their surprise and gratitude to hear how their late sister's poem had become a powerful evangelical musical tool.

Besides “The Ninety and Nine,” she is also remembered for her lyrics for “Beneath the Cross of Jesus.” Although she wrote it a year before her death, it wasn't published until four years later. Her diligence in Bible study is reflected in the hymn's Biblical allusions:

*”The Mighty Rock”--Isaiah 32:2

*”The weary land”--Psalm 63:1

*”A home within the wilderness”--Jeremiah 9:2

*”A rest upon the way”--Isaiah 28:12

*”Noontide heat”--Isaiah 4:6

*”Burden of the day”--Matthew 11:30

Unlike the spontaneous way the music was written for “The Ninety and Nine,” the tune to “Beneath the Cross of Jesus” was by Frederick Charles Maker, one of the outstanding organists of his day and a contributor to a Scottish hymnal of his times.

Two things to note in the lyrics of “Beneath the Cross of Jesus”:

*The references to the sunshine of Christ's face—no doubt remembering her nickname as the local “sunbeam”

*The two wonders she confessed: Christ's redeeming love and her unworthiness.

Sing along:

Beneath The Cross Of Jesus - YouTube

Guy Penrod, The Nelons - The Ninety and Nine (Live) - YouTube

The story behind the hilltop cross in photo at top of blog:

Friday, May 6, 2022


Reenactment: cash stash

I had just emptied my can of baking soda when a memory flashed: of my dad, on payday, rolling money into an empty red baking powder can that he hid in a dresser drawer. That was his routine for saving out cash for ongoing household expenses. He just kept just a little money at a time in his wallet, gave some to Mom, and replenished as needed from the hidden can. 

My dad (1915-1978) reflected the frugal practices of his time, when money (to most) came with hard labor. Cash ruled, not credit cards and online finances. I do know that as the sole breadwinner, he budgeted carefully, saved for a rainy day, and used-up and wore-out to stretch the family income. He also faithfully set aside a tithe, supporting the church and a special mission.

In Bible times, without locked doors and other security we enjoy, some folks buried their money in fields! That practice colored Jesus' teaching about real treasures: 

Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. (Matthew 6:19)

Centuries later, people still had odd (and often insecure) ways to “hide money.” Some people used a sock! That included an older woman in the 1850s whose granddaughter had married a hard-working but impoverished guy with undeveloped music talent.

Born into an impoverished but devout home, Philip Bliss was ten years old before he heard a piano for the first time. He was trying to sell his family's garden produce in a wealthy neighborhood when he overheard a woman practicing a piano in her parlor. Curious and intrigued, he slipped into the home to hear better. She quickly shooed him away. But as he grew up, taking hard labor jobs, he held onto his dream of learning to play music and compose Gospel songs. Music training would help. This was a financial pipe dream until his wife's grandmother, believing in his talent and calling, pulled an old bulging sock from a hiding place. Maybe her dresser! It was filled with coins she'd saved that added up to $30. In today's money, it wouldn't seem like much, but in those times, $129 was the average wage for a year. It was enough for him to enroll in a six-week music school. And the rest is history.

Bliss went on to become one of the most famous Gospel musicians in America. He tragically died (along with his wife and about 90 others) in a train wreck. Only 38, he was already well-known as a musician associated with famed evangelist D.L. Moody. And it was Moody who sadly officiated at the couple's funeral, for which 8,000 filled the hall and another 4,000 stood outside in bitter winter weather.

Some of the dozens of hymns associated with him: “Hold the Fort,” “Jesus Loves Even Me,” “Almost Persuaded,” “Hallelujah, What a Savior,” “Wonderful Words of Life,” “I Will Sing of My Redeemer,” “Let the Lower Lights be Burning,” and the tune to Spafford's famed “It Is Well With My Soul.”

Had he lived longer, there would have been more. Still, it's worth remembering that a simple old “sock bank” of coins—his wife's grandma's legacy—propelled him toward the role God had for his life. It also should cause us to stop and think: what has God entrusted to me? Something buried in the ground (or knotted away in a sock of fear or stubbornness), or responsibly shared? It can't happen if we hide our “God-money” of ability and faith.

P.S. Interesting: my dad's humble red baking powder can (long-ago tossed) now sells for $11-58 on antique resell web sites!

Friday, April 29, 2022


If trinkets could talk, they might tell quite a story. Maybe a dusty story of life before they were “left behind” when their owner downsized or passed away. I sometimes wonder about their “history” when I pass by these shelves at a local thrift store. I'm reminded of Paul's advice to Timothy: “We brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it” (1 Timothy 6:7). Or as someone wagged, “You don't see a U-Haul following a hearse.”

I have some décor and heirloom items around our home, most of them gifts. But cleaning out my parents' home after their deaths put a check in my heart of having too much “precious stuff.” My mother collected dozens of salt and pepper shakers! They sold for a pittance to another “collector.” Ditto china cup and saucer sets that were rarely used but displayed behind a glass case. My child's “start” on collecting was felt triangular pennants from places we visited on vacation. (Remember those?) They once filled a wall in my childhood bedroom. Now they're probably in some landfill. Oh, yes, I had a “birth month” ceramic angel. (Remember those? They're still around, often advertised in the ad-filled “magazine” of many Sunday papers.)

Someday, somebody else will have to dispose of “stuff” I left behind. None of us know when death will come. My retired-teacher-husband is starting to see obituaries of his former students. One was recently killed in a traffic accident, but the obituary mentioned that she had recently accepted Christ as her Savior.

Sometimes it helps to read about how godly people of the past anticipated their deaths and eternal life. I found this quote about eternity by John Baillie (Scottish theologian and ecumenical churchman, 1886-1960) both encouraging and profound:

Not even the most learned philosopher or theologian knows what it is going to be like. But there is one thing which the simplest Christian knows—he knows it is going to be all right. Somewhere, some-when, somehow we who are worshiping God here will wake up to see Him as He is, and face to face; but where or when we know not, or even whether it will be in a “where” and a “when,” that is, in space and time at all.

No doubt it will be utterly different from anything we have ever imagined or thought about. No doubt God Himself will be unimaginably different from our present conception of Him. But He will be unimaginably different only because He will be unimaginably better. The only thing we do certainly know is that our highest hopes will be more than fulfilled, and our deepest longings more than gratified. (1)

It will not be a life enhanced by trinkets, but by the pure worship of our holy, awesome God.

(1) John Baillie, Christian Devotion (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1962), p. 44, cited in Elton Trueblood, The Lord's Prayer (New York: Harper and Row, 1965) p. 92.

Friday, April 22, 2022


I can't recall when I saw my first foot-powered pump organ, like this one I recently spotted in a thrift store. Maybe it was a museum or the home of aging relatives. You know the type of décor: the “company room” with stiff furniture with doilies on the chair arms. In my childhood home in the 1960s, besides a goliath upright piano, we had a small electronic organ with two keyboards and an octave of foot pedals. About twenty “stops” to the side activated sounds, like “brass” or “woodwind.” It was all part of the “music education” my dad (who couldn't carry a tune in a bucket) provided generously for his daughters.

Along with the nostalgia of seeing this antique, I mused about the repairs it might need to work again. The pedals needed continuously pumped for sound. Think what that did for foot fitness! But if time had deteriorated critical parts to push air, there would be no music.

Aha! The air. Our English words that use the prefix “pneuma”--as in pneumonia or pneumatic tire--are offspring of the Greek pneuma, commonly defined as “air” or “spirit.” I won't get into all the theology about that. But here's the simple application: without the Holy Spirit 's power we're as spiritually mute as a broken-down pump organ.

In my scripture reading, I'm often drawn back to the “behaviors” described by the early church leaders. In writing the church at Thessalonica, for example, Paul commended their “work produced by faith....labor prompted by love, and... endurance inspired by hope in our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Thessalonians 1:3). And how did that look like in everyday life? We get a glimpse of it as he closes the letter, asking them to honor their leaders, live in peace, encourage the timid, help the weak, be patient with everyone, refuse to pay back wrong for wrong, try to be kind to one another, be joyful, and pray continually (5:13b-17). Yes, simple expressions of being a Christ-follower empowered by the Holy Spirit, but just as applicable to today.

But....the list isn't exhaustive. Here's what can be the hardest note to play in the Christian walk: “Give thanks in all circumstances, for this God's will for you in Christ Jesus” (v. 18). When things aren't going our way, that's a hard thing to do. But God wants us to look beyond our circumstances, even the negative ones, to what He can accomplish through them.

When I practiced as a youth on our little family organ, I sometimes played a piece in a minor key. If Dad was home and listening, he'd say, “Oh please, that's so sad. Play a happier song.” But life's songbook isn't all “happy,” major-key songs. The minor keys are part of human experience. Sometimes, the “instruments” on which we play (our human bodies) take a lot of effort to keep going. We're like antique pipe organs in need of repair. The answer? The phrase that Paul often used to close his letters:

The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you. (1 Thessalonians 5:28)

He's the Master Craftsman, the One who keeps us going, praising Him.


Curious about how pump organ works? Check out this short You-Tube video. (Enjoy the affection this man has for his pet dogs who weren't camera-shy!)

How Pump Organ Works - with Ricky Tims - Bing video

Friday, April 15, 2022


A monthly story on a hymn of the faith.

George Bennard, author of “The Old Rugged Cross,” had a rugged start in life. Born in 1873, his early years were spent in coal-mining towns in Ohio and Iowa where his father worked. He came to Christ as a youth through the ministry of the Salvation Army. But Bennard's father died when he was sixteen, and he had to return to the mines to support his mother and four sisters. Later, in his early twenties, he became a part of the Salvation Army. Carrying his Bible and guitar, he traveled the Midwest conducting revivals. He also married a fellow Salvationist, Arminta, orphaned when her mother died and her father committed suicide. The couple rented an apartment from a college professor in Albion. Michigan. In its little kitchen, he began working on a hymn about the cross. In these early years, too, he was ordained as a minister in the Methodist Episcopal Church.

In early 1913 he went on a revival preaching tour some three hundred miles across Lake Michigan at Sturgeon Bay, leaving his pregnant wife behind for two weeks of services. Whenever he had a spare moment, Bennard kept working on that hymn. He struggled with lyrics, wanting them to truly reflect the seriousness of the cross. That concern reportedly came from a deeply trying time he'd experienced in his ministry. One possibility was when youths heckled him at an earlier revival where he preached. As Bennard focused on the apostle Paul's words of entering into the fellowship of Christ's sufferings (Galatians 6:14), he realized the cross went beyond being a symbol to being the very heart of the Gospel.

Before the revivals ended, Bennard showed the hymn to his hosts. They gathered around a small organ to sing it for the first time, then sang it again for the final meeting of the revival. When the service ended with an altar call, 140 people went forward to accept Christ as Savior. Soon after, he traveled to Pokagon, Mich., for another revival meeting. There, the hymn was again sung. Then it was sung at a large convention and its popularity grew. Even evangelist Billy Sunday used it in his ministry. In 1938, a national radio network declared it to be the nation's most favorite hymn.

For forty more years Bennard participated in evangelistic ministries. He would write about 300 more Gospel songs. Toward the end of his life, he relocated to southern California for his wife's health. After her death, he remarried and returned to Michigan to live out his final years. He died in 1958—exchanging his cross from a crown--at age eighty-five.

Several cities now have memorial markers for their connection to the hymn. At Albion, Mich., near the home site where he first started writing the song in 1912, there's a historical marker. Sturgeon Bay, Wisc., has a garden with a cross for the hymn's first singing at the Friends Community Church. Pokagon, Michigan, honors its connection to the completed hymn (sung in revival services) at the now-restored church, which had fallen into disrepair in years it was used for a livestock barn and drying hops. Besides being a museum, it's used for weddings and receptions, and houses a twice-monthly “hymn sing” that closes with Bennard's hymn.

A few miles outside of Reed City, Mich., where Bennard spent his final years, there's a twelve-foot cross with the words, “The Old Rugged Cross—Home of George Bennard, composer of this beloved hymn.” The town also has a museum about his life. Near the end of his life, Bennard was interviewed about his hymn. He said writing it wasn't his greatest fulfillment. “Saving souls was my greatest thrill,” he said. “That hymn's just runner-up.”

Many country Western singers perform this hymn. Here is one from YouTube: