A Work of Restoration

In the four year period between 1508 and 1512, Michelangelo lay on his back on a scaffold in the Sistine Chapel in Vatican City, creating one of the greatest artistic triumphs in history.

Unfortunately, the magnificent work of art soon began to fade. Less than a century later, no one could remember what the original frescoes had looked like.

One person described it this way: “We see the colors of the Sistine ceiling as if through smoked glass.”

In 1981 a project began to clean the frescoes that adorn the chapel. After two art-restorers carefully cleaned a small corner of the painting with a special solution, they invited experts to examine the work.

The result was breathtaking. No one had imagined that such vibrant colors lay beneath the centuries of accumulated dust and dirt.

This was not the Michelangelo known by art critics, the one whose frescoes resembled sculpture more than painting. This showed the artist was also the master of color and nuance.

The success of this partial project prompted the restoration of the entire ceiling.

The task was completed on December 31, 1989. It took twice as long to clean the ceiling as it had taken the artist to paint it.

But the result was breathtaking. For the first time in 5 centuries, people were able to view this masterpiece the way it was intended, in all of its color and beauty.

Today, God is doing a work of restoration in your life.

It may take longer than you expect, but the end result will be the same: Your life will be filled with the vibrant colors that he has planned for you from the very beginning.

Though you have made me see troubles, many and bitter, you will restore my life again. From the depths of the earth, you will again bring me up. (Psalm 71:20)

1 Thessalonians 5:11

Of Course You Can

In the Handbook to Short Story Writing,  Muriel Anderson says that four of the most important words in her life have been “Of course you can.”

Her father, she says, always knew how to say these words at exactly the right time.

She had begun to try her hand at writing articles, hoping maybe the local newspaper would publish them. She began thinking of all reasons why it most likely never happen: She was young and inexperienced; the local paper was on a tight budget; they rarely bought freelance material.

She told her father, “I doubt I can get this article published.”

He said, “Of course you can.”

And she did. This first article launched her career as a writer.

Four simple words from her father were enough to encourage her to keep trying.

Maybe there is someone in your life waiting to hear these words today: Of course you can.

Let’s never miss an opportunity to encourage one another.

Therefore encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing.  (1 Thessalonians 5:11)

If I’ve Only One Life…

In 1961 an advertising copywriter named Shirley Polykoff was working for the Foote, Cone & Belding ad agency on the Clairol hair-dye account when she pitched this idea to a room full of executives: If I’ve only one life, let me live it as a blonde!

The rest, as they say, is advertising history.

Actually, Shirley had already created magic in previous campaigns. Her first big idea had been five years earlier. The slogan was: “Does She or Doesn’t She?” (Do you remember that it was an ad campaign for hair dye?)

She also came up with “The Closer He Gets, the Better You Look.”

But this line, If I’ve only one life, let me live it as a blonde, was, perhaps, her greatest — in terms of success in advertising, anyway.

It leads to an interesting question: How would you complete this sentence? “If I’ve only one life, let me live it as a …”

As a what? Devoted mom? Loyal husband? Faithful friend? Successful business leader? Committed Christian?

The truth is, we each have only life to live — and there are only a few goals worth pursuing.

And one is greater than them all.

In weighing the various measures of success, the Apostle Paul said…

I also consider everything to be a loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. (Philippians 3:10)

Just a few paragraphs before, he said…

For to me, to live is Christ… (Philippians 1:21)

Paul was saying: If I’ve only one life, let me live it as a sold-out follower of Jesus Christ.

A Princess in Disguise

Today’s memo is about Sarah Culberson.

Sarah was born in 1976 in West Virginia. After being placed in foster care for a year, she was adopted into a loving family — the Culbersons. Both parents were teachers. She grew up active in the United Methodist Church.

Sarah had always wondered about her heritage, so after graduating from college, she hired a private investigator to find her biological parents.

Her birth mom, she discovered, had died of cancer in the early nineties.

But it was what she learned about her birth father that changed her life forever.

As it turns out, Sarah wasn’t just a young woman from West Virginia. She was royalty. A princess.

Her father was now a ruling member of the Mende tribe in Sierra Leone. They began to correspond, and soon he invited her to Africa to meet her family.

When she arrived she received a royal welcome, with hundreds coming to greet her.

She kept asking herself: “What did I do to deserve this? I’m just Sarah from West Virginia.”

But she’s not just Sarah from West Virginia. She was born Princess Esther Elizabeth; that’s who she is. She had lived her life not knowing that she was a member of a ruling class — a princess in disguise. And then she discovered her true heritage.

Today, Sarah lives an amazing life. After pursuing a career in acting, she now works in education, she’s a public speaker, and she maintains close ties to both of her communities and both of her families. (Here is her website)

I love this story because it is — incredibly — similar to our story. We, too, have a royal heritage. We’re king’s kids, you could say.

And yet some believers remain unaware of who they really are.

The Apostle Peter said…

You are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. (1 Peter 2:9)

Today, take a moment to consider who you are in Christ, and who he has made you to be.


The photograph of Princess Sarah Culberson by Elunaman is licensed under Creative Commons.

More Than Conquering

Recently I was reading about the 1938-39 University of Tennessee Volunteers football team — legends in NCAA history.

In ‘38 they went 11-0, won the SEC, beat Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl, and claimed the National Championship. They didn’t merely win, they conquered.

The following year they went 10-0 in the regular season — undefeated, untied, and un-scored-upon. Not a touchdown, not a field goal, not a safety. Every game ended in a shut-out.

That’s not merely conquering. That’s more than conquering.

This is the phrase Paul used in Romans 8 to describe how we can approach life:

In all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. (Romans 8:37)

It’s a great phrase, but the truth is that many of us don’t feel like we’re more-than-conquering anything right now. We’re more-than-overwhelmed with challenges we never saw coming — creating hardship in the present and filling the future with uncertainty.

For many, Paul’s assurance seems just beyond our grasp. But the answer is closer than it seems, and it’s closer than it often feels.

The Bible is filled with promises from a loving Father who is always near, who comforts us in our sorrow, strengthens us in our weakness, and lifts us up when we are down.

There may be battles, and more than a few close calls, but our victory is assured.

Fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my righteous right hand. (Isaiah 41:10)

That’s Gratitude For You

A grandmother was watching her grandchild play on the beach when a huge wave came along and carried him out to sea.

She cried out, “Please God, save my only grandson. I beg of you, bring him back.”

Suddenly another big wave came along and tossed the boy back onto the beach, good as new.

The grandmother looked up to heaven and said: “He had a hat!”

That’s gratitude for you.

Have you noticed that there are some who just can’t be satisfied? There are some — and I’m talking about you and me sometimes — who have a hard time expressing gratitude.

Or even feeling it.

In 2001 Stephen Post, a medical school professor of bioethics, created a research group called the Institute for Research on Unlimited Love, dedicated to testing and measuring the effects of love, gratitude, and other positive caring emotions in human life.

Dr. Post’s research has discovered that spending 15 minutes a day focused on things you’re grateful for can have the following effects on our physical health:

1. It increases your body’s natural antibodies.
2. It increases mental capacity and reduces vulnerability to depression.
3. It creates a physiological state of resonance, improving your blood pressure and heart rate.

That’s gratitude for you. It not only lifts up the recipient, it also gives life to the one expressing it.

This is why we’re told time and time again in scripture to give thanks: A thankful heart puts us in right alignment with God and one another.

Paul wrote…

And always be thankful. Let the message about Christ, in all its richness, fill your lives. Teach and counsel each other with all the wisdom he gives. Sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs to God with thankful hearts.

And whatever you do or say, do it as a representative of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks through him to God the Father. (Colossians 3:15-17)

There. That’s gratitude for you.

This is a Football

In 1960, the Green Bay Packers’ season ended on a disappointing note.

They were playing the Eagles for the National Championship. (This was before the Super Bowl era.) After squandering a lead in the fourth quarter, they were unable to capitalize on a last-minute opportunity. They lost the game, 17-13.

During the off-season, Coach Vince Lombardi came to the conclusion that his players, though talented, had failed to focus on the fundamentals of the game.

So, when training camp began in the following season, he decided to take a back-to-basics approach in rebuilding the team.

And he decided to start at the very beginning.

In the opening team meeting, he held up a ball and said, “Gentlemen, first things first. This is a football.”

Lombardi’s lets-start-at-the-beginning strategy might not have been the only reason the Packers won the 1961 Championship — defeating the New York Giants 37-0 — but it certainly didn’t hurt.

When we lose sight of our priorities, it’s time to get back to the basics:

• This is my job.
• This is my family.
• This is priority one for me.
• This is a customer.
• This is a to-do list.
• This is a new day.
• This is a Bible.
• This is the Christian life.

Has an area of your life become more complicated than necessary? Maybe it’s time to locate square one, identify step one, and begin again — at the beginning.

Working With a Net

Golden Gate Bridge netWhen the Golden Gate bridge was being built in San Francisco, a number of workers lost their lives by falling from precariously high positions.

As a result, the work proceeded slowly until someone hit on the idea of building a net under the construction area so that when a workman fell, he would not fall to his death but would be caught by the net.

A giant safety net was developed at a cost of $100,000. This was the first time something like this was used at a construction site.

With the security of the net below them, men were able to move about at a faster pace because they knew that if they fell their lives would be spared. With the security of the net below them, they could work without the dread of uncertainty.

We may not be able to see the net below us, but it’s there. Our security comes from a loving, all-powerful God who protects us every step of the way.

David said…

I have set the Lord always before me. Because he is at my right hand, I will not be shaken. (Psalm 16:8)

Bobby Leach

A Legend of the Fall

Bobby Leach achieved fame and fortune when, at the age of 53, he went over Niagara Falls in a barrel.

After recuperating from his injuries, Bobby toured North America and the UK with the historic barrel in tow, recounting the experience for enthusiastic audiences in circus tents and lecture halls.

Leach had been a lifelong circus performer, so daredevil stunts were nothing new to him. Even into his sixties he was attempting crazy things, such as swimming across whirlpool rapids.

So how did he die?

He was the victim of a banana peel. No kidding. He slipped on it, injuring his leg. The leg became infected, leading to gangrene, requiring an amputation, but it was too late. He died within a couple of months.

It’s the little things…

Is it strange that the man who could survive Niagara Falls in a barrel couldn’t survive a banana peel?

Actually, no.

More often than not, it’s the little things that beat us. It’s because they catch us off guard. When you know you’re going over the falls in a barrel, you’re fully prepared and prayed up. Something as mundane as walking across the room, however, you’re likely to think you’ve got it handled.

That’s when we’re likely to slip.

And that’s why Paul said…

So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall! (1 Corinthians 10:12)

I wonder how that banana peel got to Mr. Leach. Did he see it and think that the mere skin of a fruit couldn’t hurt him? Or was he simply not paying attention? Either way, the mistake proved fatal.

Think about the banana peels you encounter throughout the day. A missed devotional. A half-hearted effort at work. Spending without thinking. Carelessness in conversation. Neglecting those most important to you.

These things are more malicious than they appear. If you’re not careful, they can make you fall.

It works both ways…

The flip side of the coin is that these little things also have the potential to take you to the next level. Jesus explained it …

“Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much, and whoever is dishonest with very little will also be dishonest with much.” (Luke 16:10)

And he said…

“You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things.” (Matthew 25:21)

You will encounter many banana peels today. Or they could be stepping stones. Pay attention to each one, remembering that how you deal with this little thing will lead to the next big thing in your life.

[This post first appeared in 2012]
O Master Let Me Walk With Me

The Solution to Soul Fatigue

Here’s another hymn story. This one takes place in the year 1879, when a soul-fatigued pastor found himself overcome with discouragement.

Washington Gladden had been serving God for 20 years, but had yet to see much fruit in his ministry. He was also beset by personal problems and family problems. And now he was at the point of despair — frustrated and discouraged; weak and weary. He felt like a failure in ministry, and a failure in life.

I’ll give away the ending now and say that in the years to come, his life and ministry would be much different.

He would write dozens of books, hundreds of articles and editorials, and even publish a national magazine. He would become an influential voice in matters that shaped our cultural values in the early 20th century. He would also pastor a thriving church in Columbus, Ohio.

But in 1879 Washington Gladden couldn’t see what was to come. He could see only what was today. He could only see his discouragement.

That afternoon he climbed up to the top of the church bell tower to be alone and to think for a while. The thought even crossed his mind that he could jump from the ledge and make his troubles disappear.

But he didn’t jump. Instead, he poured out his heart to God, putting into words what would eventually become a hymn that has since appeared in more than 400 hymnals, and has been sung in hundreds of thousands of churches throughout the world for the last century and a half.

This is what he wrote…

O Master let me walk with thee
In lowly paths of service free.
Tell me Thy secret; help me bear
The strain of toil, the fret of care.

Reverend Gladden experienced what every pastor, every staff member, every missionary, every leader, every volunteer has experienced. He experienced what every person who desires to live a difference-making life has experienced.

I’m talking about Discouragement with a capital D. Disappointment. Frustration. Fatigue. Not the kind of fatigue where your body is worn out. The kind of fatigue where your soul is worn out. Where your will is worn out. And you’re not sure how much longer you can carry on.

Many times our fatigue is stoked by a lack of measurable success. The paradox, however, is that racking up results rarely resolves the problem. In fact, there is only one real solution to overcome soul-fatigue. It is found in the first line of Gladden’s hymn:

O Master let me walk with thee.

Results in ministry are always cause for celebration, but they’re not enough in themselves to give us the strength to face a new day. This strength can be found only in the presence of a daily walk with Christ.

As the new week begins, and you take aim at every item on your list, remember that priority one remains the same: This is a journey we are called to make with Jesus, not merely for him.

“Come to me all who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” (Matthew 11:28)

O Love That Wilt Not Let Me Go

The Love That Will Not Let You Go

Here’s another hymn story. This one takes place in Scotland in the mid-to-late 1800s.

It’s about about George Matheson who, at the age of 20, had what appeared to be a brilliant future ahead of him. He was an outstanding theology student, preparing for what would certainly be a distinguished career in academia. He was also engaged to the woman of his dreams.

Everything was just right … except he was beginning to lose his sight. Slowly, little by little, day by day, his world became increasingly dark. How can one become a scholar with no ability to read? Braille was still in its infancy; the options were limited.

His fiancé decided that she couldn’t bear going through life with a vision-impaired husband, so she broke off the engagement, and George Matheson’s world came undone.

However, he didn’t let this setback hold him back. He decided, instead, to become a pastor, and began serving a small church.

His sister became his devoted assistant. She studied Greek, Hebrew, and Latin to help with his sermon preparation and his writing. She accompanied him throughout the day, assisting him in his pastoral responsibilities.

Over the years, George Matheson became quite successful in the ministry: he became the pastor of a large church, and he wrote several books of theology, poetry, and sacred music.

And then one day his sister told him that she had fallen in love. She had made plans to marry, and would soon be leaving to begin a new life and family with her husband.

George realized that he would be alone. For 20 years his sister had been his connection to the seeing world. She had read to him, she completed his research, she had been his scribe, as well as his partner in ministry … and now he was alone again.

On the night before her wedding, he said, “Something happened to me, which was known only to myself, and which caused me the most severe mental suffering.” Those close to him understood that he was reminded of the time so many years before, as he was preparing to get married, and the love of his life let him go. And now he was losing his closest friend and confidant — his dear sister.

On that night, June 6 1882, as George Matheson thought about the love he had lost years before, and as he thought about the lonely days that lie ahead, he wrote these words…

O Love that wilt not let me go,
I rest my weary soul in thee;
I give thee back the life I owe,
That in thine ocean depths its flow
May richer, fuller be.

There are many who understand on a deep and personal level the story behind this hymn, and what George Matheson felt, because you, too, have at times felt abandoned and alone. No doubt we have all felt this way.

In a psalm written later in life, King David wrote…

If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast. (Psalm 139:9-10)

Your right hand will hold me fast.

To say it another way: You will not let me go.

God loves you with a love that will never let you go. Even when you were at your worst, he sent his very best, his only Son, to die on the cross, so that you might live. No circumstance of life can separate you; nothing can take you from his hand.

… for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my righteous right hand. (Isaiah 41:10)

Morning by morning new mercies I see.

The Morning-by-Morning Goodness of God

One of my favorite hymns is also one my favorite hymn stories, because it is almost a non-story.

Many hymns were written in response to a dramatic turning point in the composer’s life — a personal crisis, a lost love, the death of someone near.

But this hymn was not the result of a turning point as much it is the result of a lifelong reflection. While many hymns are born out of a dramatic experience, this hymn was simply the result of the author’s morning by morning recognition of God’s faithfulness.

The story begins in 1893, in the southern state of Kentucky. A young newspaper editor named Thomas Obadiah Chisholm surrendered his life to Jesus Christ. He was 27 at the time, and his dream became that someday he would serve God full time in the ministry.

Eventually he was able to serve as a pastor in the Methodist Church, but his appointment lasted only a year; he was forced to resign due to poor health. He then moved to New Jersey and began selling life insurance, while remaining active in his local church.

Over the years he wrote well over a thousand hymns and sacred poems, submitting them often to various periodicals for publication. A few made their way into print, though he himself never became well-known.

Later in life, at the age of 75, he wrote…

“My income has not been large at any time due to impaired health in the earlier years which has followed me until now, although I must not fail to record the unfailing faithfulness of a covenant-keeping God, for which I am filled with astonishing gratefulness.”

Thomas Chisholm finally retired at the age of 87. He spent his last years in a retirement home. In 1960, at the age of 94, he went home to be with the Lord.

It was a song that he wrote years earlier, in 1923, at the age of 57, for which he is known today. If you’ve been in church very long, you no doubt know it.

It was written by a man who lived, by and large, an unremarkable life — knowing neither fame nor fortune. But he did know something about the day-by-day, morning-by-morning goodness of God in every area of life.

That’s what makes this hymn great. Virtually every line of this great hymn is pulled from the Scripture. It reminds us of how the God we serve is faithful in every way — even when things don’t work out exactly as we would like, we can see his hand at work in every moment of every day.

These are the words that Thomas Obadiah Chisholm wrote…

Great is Thy faithfulness, O God my Father!
There is no shadow of turning with Thee;
Thou changest not, Thy compassions they fail not:
As Thou hast been Thou forever wilt be.

And this is the chorus…

Great is Thy faithfulness, great is Thy faithfulness,
Morning by morning new mercies I see;
All I have needed Thy hand hath provided —
Great is Thy faithfulness, Lord, unto me!

Thomas Obadiah Chisholm never achieved the accolades of success in this life. As a musician, you might call him a late-comer and a one-hit-wonder. But he lived a great life because he experienced, and he recognized, and he appreciated the morning-by-morning faithfulness of God in his life.

A lesson we can learn from his life: When you make it your habit to seek God’s presence every day, you begin to see evidence of his faithfulness all around you.

. . . . . . . .

Today’s memo was taken from Steve’s series Psalms, Hymns & Spiritual Songs.