My Grandma Ruby would have been 112 today. Born in 1907, she passed away just weeks before our first child was born in 2004. I’ve shared a little about her here, where I discussed the handmade furniture she created from scraps of wood for my mother to use with her dolls.
In honor of Ruby Cox Price Johnston today, I want to share some of what I wrote for her memorial service 15 years ago.
When I remember Grandma, I remember sweet iced tea. And pies and Christmas time visits (including the time she leaned too far and fell into the Christmas tree). I remember watching the Lawrence Welk Show and Hee Haw together by the wood stove in the house where I grew up. Grandma liked to stay very warm. There are countless memories of singing together. She loved the old classic hymns as well as the silly songs of long ago. She passed them down to my cousins and me, so we can sing the 1923 hit, “Yes, We Have No Bananas,” and “Carolina in the Morning,” first published in 1922.
When I remember Grandma, I remember praying. Grandma prayed and lived a life of godly devotion to her Lord and her family. She was not ashamed of the gospel, rather, she was ashamed of the many ungodly things in this world. For instance, she would never read a book any further than the first curse word she encountered. Over the course of her long life, she was a faithful member of several churches.
I learned these things from my Grandma Ruby:
Be faithful to God and the things He calls us to do.
Sing a lot.
Things that you carefully make with your hands are beautiful and valuable.
Pray often. I know she prayed for me.
Love your family; be proud of your children and grandchildren. And tell them you’re proud of them and that you love them.
Grandma Ruby lived a quiet, often hard life, working with her hands in what many would consider remote rural places. She picked cotton and tobacco in the fields of North Carolina as a child. She raised my mother and her sisters, as well as several step-children, in the mountains of Southwest Virginia, where if they had any luxuries, it was because she made them—toys, dresses, good food. She was never famous, but her legacy will reach far and wide through her many grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
Thank you, Grandma, and Happy birthday. I love you.
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It’s finished! Back in September, I shared a new work in progress. You can read that post here. I’m pleased to say that I’ve finished the piece, Shining as the Sun.
As I wrote last month, this is the first in a series of sculptures inspired by the verses of “Amazing Grace,” the beloved 1779 hymn by John Newton. However, I’m starting at the end because I’ve always loved the imagery of what we know as the last verse of the hymn:
“When we’ve been there ten thousand years, Bright shining as the sun, We’ve no less days to sing God’s praise, Than when we first begun.”
But that verse was not written by John Newton. It was first recorded in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 anti-slavery novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The verse was originally one of between 50 and 70 verses of a song titled “Jerusalem, My Happy Home,” which was published in a 1790 book called A Collection of Sacred Ballads.
Today, though, it’s sung as the closing verse of the hymn in congregations all over the world.
I’ll be doing a very limited, yet-to-be-determined number of these sculptures. This first in the series is now available. Visit the shop to learn more.
Now I’ll move to the beginning and work my way through the hymn. First up will be the most well-known verse:
Amazing grace! (how sweet the sound)
That sav’d a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.
I’ll share the process with you as I go along and we’ll see how it takes shape together.
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The rock you see above is a geode. Geodes are hollow formations, often roughly spherical, that become filled with mineral deposits through water flow and other natural processes. This geode was given to me by a good friend of mine from California. He and his family used to camp out west where they collected these rocks, which don’t look like much on the outside. But once he was back home, he would cut them open to reveal the amazing crystals or other mineral deposits inside.
Sometimes, we can be a little like a backward geode. In our beauty- and youth-obsessed culture, outward appearances are paramount. Instagram feeds are full of photos carefully staged to show off perfect appearances, while beauty video bloggers, or vloggers, crank out countless hours of YouTube tutorials on how to look your best—i.e. youngest and most beautiful. And did you know Americans spent $16.5 billion on 17.7 million elective cosmetic surgeries in 2018 alone? So says the American Society of Plastic Surgeons®. Today, the U.S. beauty industry is valued at $80 billion and expected to reach $90 billion by 2020. But all that money and effort is spent only on the outside.
In the twenty-third chapter of Matthew’s gospel, we find Jesus calling out the hypocrisy of the backward geode religious leaders of His day, saying, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness. So you also outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.” (verses 27-28, ESV).
God is more concerned about our inward beauty than what’s on the outside. Maybe He even created geodes to give us a simple picture of what we should be. Certainly, there’s nothing wrong with wanting to look our best, but if the outside always demands more time and effort than the inside, it might be time to re-evaluate.
Want to try seeing yourself and those around you like God does? Look for inner beauty. What is special, amazing, fun, inspiring, sweet, or wonderful about someone that has nothing whatsoever to do with the outside? And when you see it in yourself, let it express itself through your creative work and everything you do. “For The Lord sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but The Lord looks on the heart.” (1 Samuel 16:7b, ESV)
Who are the geodes in your life? They may also be beautiful on the outside, and that’s great, but what’s special about them on the inside? Drop us a line in the form below and share your thoughts with us.
Corrie ten Boom asked, “Is prayer your steering wheel or your spare tire?”
It’s a fair question. Psalm 145:18 says, “The LORD is near to all who call on him, to all who call on him in truth.” With a promise like that, we can be encouraged to pray more than just over our meals. Just a couple of verses before Philippians 4:8, the driving verse for Inspiring Handmade, is verse 6: “do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.”
Oswald Chambers said, “Prayer does not fit us for the greater work; prayer is the greater work.” Maybe that’s where we sometimes get confused. Prayer is not the work toward some desired outcome; it is the desired outcome.
We’ve created a couple of pieces based on Patti’s Wire People sculptures to help keep prayer top of mind.
The State Fair of Virginia is underway as I write this. The Fair, maybe as much as anything, is a metaphor for life. Along its avenues and amongst its attractions you can find emotions from across the spectrum. Joy. What child hasn’t thrilled to win a prize at one of the carnival games? Patti Jones’ “Girl with Balloons” recalls the simple joy of things like balloons. Wonder. The sights of the Fair from the top of the ferris wheel. Disappointment. The missed toss that loses the prize, the final stop of the ferris wheel. Curiosity. Touching a goat, a pig, or milking a cow for the first time. Hunger. The array of deep fried everything—from bananas to Oreo cookies—stirs the appetite after hours of walking. Sleepy satisfaction. Finally resting after a full day of sights, sounds, smells, and tastes. Life, like the Fair, is so easy to rush through. But it only lasts for a season. Savor the Joy, the wonder, even the disappointment, the curiosity, the hunger, the sleepy satisfaction of a day well spent.
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Have you ever watched a master potter forming a new piece of work on his wheel? He’ll take a lump of clay, plop it on the wheel, add water, and turn the wheel on. That’s when the magic happens. His masterful fingers remove clay from where he doesn’t it want and apply pressure in just the right places to transform the lump of clay into the form that he has planned for it.
The metaphor of the potter and clay has long been applied to the human experience with God. The Bible is full of references to this ancient art form. Consider Isaiah 64:8: “But now, O Lord, You are our Father; we are the clay, and You are our potter; we are all the work of Your hand.” Jeremiah 18:1-23 and other passages also reference the imagery of the potter and clay.
All people everywhere are, indeed, made in the image of God, as recorded in Genesis 1:27: “So God created human beings in his own image. In the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” The second chapter of Genesis offers a little more detail it its seventh verse, which says, “Then the LORD God formed the man from the dust of the ground. He breathed the breath of life into the man’s nostrils, and the man became a living person.”
Of all of the creatures that God made, people are the only ones He made in His image. Think about that for moment. With no other creature does Scripture say that God shared His very breath. We understand that the “image of God” refers to the immaterial aspect of our humanity—qualities such as our sense of morality and self-awareness. It’s what sets us apart from animals and enables us to have fellowship with our Creator.
Originally, God declared that His completed work was “very good.” That image of God in us, though, was marred when Adam and Eve chose to reject God’s way and follow their own plan. The entire Bible from that point on until the last book of Revelation is the account of God pursuing His creation, calling us back into that close relationship that was lost because of that first sin by Adam and Eve.
Finally, God the Son, Jesus Christ, left the glories of heaven and humbled Himself (Philippians 2:6), entering our space and time as a small baby who grew to be a man. Jesus lived to show us what God was like and He died to pay the price for our sins. Because of that, if we believe in Him, trusting Him to restore our relationship with God, then the Scriptures say we will be saved.
Now let’s get back to the potter. Second Corinthians 3 tells us that those put their trust in Jesus Christ are being transformed by God—that is they are being changed from their sinful, rebellious selves, into people who look more and more like Jesus. The churchy word for this is “sanctification.”
I like to think of it like as a lump of clay in the hands of a master potter. As long as the clay is on the wheel, in the hands of the potter, it will be transformed from a lump into whatever form the potter has in mind—a vase, a dish, a pitcher. Sometimes the potter turns the clay into something beautiful that decorates a room. Sometimes he makes something very useful. But he always has a vision and a plan for the clay on the wheel. And just as it takes time for a potter to transform clay from a lump into a beautiful or useful object, sanctification—transforming people into the image of Christ—takes a while, too. In fact, it takes a lifetime.
But it’s worth it because each day, each year, we are closer to being what God designed us to be from the beginning. The key is to stay on the wheel. It’s only there, under the hands of The Potter, that we can be transformed into what He wants us to be. And when you feel like the pressure of His hands is too much, or He’s stretching you too thin in one area or another, or the wheel is making you more than a little dizzy, remember that He sees what you’re becoming. He has a plan to finish His work with you. He won’t leave you lumpy and deformed on His wheel! Trust Him and lean on these words of Paul to the Philippians (1:6): “And I am certain that God, who began the good work within you, will continue His work until it is finally finished on the day when Christ Jesus returns.”
This fall I’m excited to return to a project that I began, and put on hold, last year. I’m working on a series of sculptures based on Amazing Grace!. Once complete, there will be a sculpture for each of the six verses of the 1779 hymn by John Newton, plus the verse from Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which is described below. Probably the most well-known and beloved hymn in all of Christendom, Amazing Grace! is about being salvaged or saved.
Amazing Grace! (Original words)
Amazing grace! (how sweet the sound) That sav’d a wretch like me! I once was lost, but now am found, Was blind, but now I see.
‘Twas grace that taught my heart to fear, And grace my fears reliev’d; How precious did that grace appear The hour I first believ’d!
Thro’ many dangers, toils, and snares, I have already come; ‘Tis grace hath brought me safe thus far, And grace will lead me home.
The Lord has promis’d good to me, His word my hope secures; He will my shield and portion be As long as life endures.
Yes, when this flesh and heart shall fail, And mortal life shall cease; I shall possess, within the veil, A life of joy and peace.
The earth shall soon dissolve like snow, The sun forbear to shine; But God, who call’d me here below, Will be forever mine.
—John Newton, Olney Hymns, 1779
The bottom of page 53 of Olney Hymns shows the first stanza of the hymn beginning “Amazing Grace!”
The final verse of the modern version of the hymn was not written by Newton, but was first recorded in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 anti-slavery novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The verse was originally one of between 50 and 70 verses of a song titled Jerusalem, My Happy Home, which was published in a 1790 book called A Collection of Sacred Ballads.
When we’ve been there ten thousand years, Bright shining as the sun, We’ve no less days to sing God’s praise, Than when we first begun.
There’s nothing like starting at the end. To me, that last verse has some of the most vivid imagery of the hymn, so I started there. The sculpture is pictured in progress here and, once it’s complete, will illustrate the final verse of the song as it is usually sung today.
Like all my sculptures, this piece is being created from salvaged wood that would have been tossed into the trash or used as kindling wood for a fire. As I work on these pieces, I realize that I’m much like this wood and the as I’ve saved it from the trash heap or the fire, I’m blessed to remember that God has saved me from a similar doom. I can sing with Newton, and the countless men and women of faith throughout the centuries, “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost, but now I am found, was blind, but now I see.“
As the rest of pieces progress, I’ll post some more studio pictures along the way. I don’t know yet how many sculptures I’ll make of each verse—I may only make one or two full collections. Stay tuned!
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The story is told of a little girl who was suffering from a rare and serious disease. Her only chance of recovery appeared to be a blood transfusion from her five-year-old brother, who had miraculously survived the same disease and had developed the antibodies needed to fight it.
As best he could, the doctor explained the situation to her brother, and asked the little boy if he would be willing to give his blood to his sister. He hesitated for a long moment and then took a deep breath and said, “Yes, I’ll do it if it will save her.”
The medical team quickly began the process. The little boy lay in a bed next to his sister and looked at her and silently smiled. He could see the color returning to her cheeks as he watch the red blood flow out of his body and into hers. Then his face grew pale and his smile faded. He looked up at the doctor and asked with a trembling voice, “Will I start to die right away?”
At his age, the boy had misunderstood the doctor. When he said “yes,” he believed he was volunteering to give all of his blood—and his life—to his sister. And he gave it willingly.
I can’t read this story without thinking of the powerful words in John 15:12-14. There we find Jesus speaking to His disciples near the end of His earthly life and ministry. He was soon to go through the humiliation and agony of dying on a cross. He said these words to His closest followers: “This is My commandment, that you love one another, just as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends. You are My friends if you do what I command you.
In that short passage are three challenging truths:
Jesus wants us to love one another. And not just love one another as we think best, or easiest, or most beneficial to ourselves. He wants us to love as He loved us, which leads us to the second truth …
Jesus loved us sacrificially. He literally gave His life for us, suffering a horrible death on the cross, not to pay the price for any crime He had committed, but to pay the price for the wrong things we’ve done. He did this so that our relationship with God could be restored. In John 15, Jesus calls us to love as He loved. But instead of giving our lives on a cross, we’re asked to live sacrificially. In Romans 12, Paul expands on what this looks like when he says, “And so, dear brothers and sisters, I plead with you to give your bodies to God because of all He has done for you. Let them be a living and holy sacrifice—the kind He will find acceptable. This is truly the way to worship Him.” Living a life that puts God and others first is at the heart of what these passages are all about.
The last challenge from Jesus is a litmus test for those who claim to follow Him. How do we know if we’re a friend and follower of Jesus? We’ll be busy doing what He commands. What does that look like in my life and yours?
This week, I’ve been thinking about that as I’ve been working on a new sculpture series I’m calling “The Minis.” They’re small pieces of original art. While some may share verses or poetry, no two will look alike because I’m creating them from small pieces of salvaged barn and other woods.
The Mini at the top of this post is called “No Greater Love” and measures just 6.5″ tall by 3.5″ wide. Its wire hand and nail sculpture is set in a piece of oak barn wood from a circa 1905 barn in Southwest Virginia’s Giles County. You can see the nail holes and old knot in the wood. I’ve hand transferred the words of John 15:13 on it as a reminder that Jesus died as a sacrifice for me (and you) and He’s asking me to live sacrificially for Him (and you).
As the summer winds down, school has started, or will soon start for students and families everywhere. There’s a rhythm to a new school year, isn’t there? The relatively relaxed pace of summer seems to reluctantly give way to the regimen of academic and athletic schedules. New books to read, new project deadlines, practices and games, and of course, the ever-quickening march toward Thanksgiving (in the U.S.) and Christmas all take the place of slow, long days of sleeping in and staying up late. All of which can cause us to rush to squeeze in that last experience of summer freedom around this time of year.
Patti’s sculpture, Fishing with my Dad, part of her Wire People series, reminds me of this. Fishing just goes with lazy summer days like peanut butter goes with jelly. I’ve fished a little and I know there are those who take the sport quite seriously, but to my mind, there’s not a more low-key, relaxed activity that lets you still claim to actually be accomplishing something, or at least trying to. That probably doesn’t apply when you’re reeling one in, as the characters in this sculpture are doing.
And this time of year, a time of transition, finds many of us anticipating something. In a way, we’re all fishing. We’re standing at the water’s edge. You know the water’s edge? Where the land ends and the water and all that’s unknown under its surface, begins. That’s where we are in this season. We’re standing at autumn’s edge, where the summer ends and the autumn begins—autumn, and all that’s unknown, and yet to come in the course of its days. And we’re fishing. We’re looking, hoping for something.
Maybe it’s that last celebration of summer. Maybe we feel that summer slipped by too fast and we want to get the family away just one more time. We want to catch one more big one for the scrapbook, or Facebook, or Instagram feed, if you prefer.
Perhaps we’re looking ahead, casting out in front of us. Students might be fishing for a better school year. Teachers may be dropping in their lines hoping to pull up an engaged, motivated class. Parents may be angling for some balance between academics, extracurricular activities, and family time. Newly minted sixteen-year-olds may be casting about for a job, or their first car. But we’re all standing here, at the edge, fishing, hoping for something. And that’s not a bad thing at all.
We’re all standing here, at the edge, fishing, hoping for something.
Jeremiah 29:11 is one of the most quoted verses in the Bible, and for good reason. It’s full of encouragement for those fishing for hope. It’s been cross-stitched on pillows and engraved on plaques and signs. And without a single survey to back up this statement, I’d speculate that it’s nearly as well known to a Christian audience as John 3:16.
But the backdrop of the verse is one of pain and suffering. It’s actually part of a letter that the prophet Jeremiah sent from Jerusalem to the Jews who had been taken captive by King Nebuchadnezzar and who were now living as exiles in Babylon. God was using their defeat and captivity at the hands of Nebuchadnezzar and the Babylonians to punish them for their rebellion and their many years of worshipping false gods. And yet, even in the midst of disciplining His own people, God gave them a promise and a reason for hope. They were told to live their lives in their new city, to grow their families, and to pray for and help their city to prosper. Then in verse 10, Jeremiah wrote these words of The Lord, “When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will come to you and fulfill My good promise to bring you back to this place.” His next sentence was the encouraging verse 11: “‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares The Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.'”
Fishing for, and finding, hope in the midst of trials and despair was (and still is) possible because it’s The Lord Himself who promises good things for our future.
No matter what we’ve experienced in the past year, we stand at the edge of autumn and all the unknown that lies before us. And we’re fishing—and hoping, and trusting, or at least trying to.
A generation or two before Jeremiah, the prophet Isaiah looked around and saw that no one was as powerful and as caring as The Lord. So he wrote these words, which will be my mantra as I stand at this autumn’s edge. Maybe they’ll inspire you, too. “But those who trust in The Lord will find new strength. They will soar high on wings like eagles. They will run and not grow weary. They will walk and not faint. (Isaiah 40:31 NLT).
Aug 21, 2017 brought a total solar eclipse to viewers across the United States. And sky watchers in other parts of North and South America could see at least a percentage of the sun blocked by the moon. Did you see it? If you were like a lot of folks, you got your glasses and hoped for clear skies.
Some folks made a road trip for the chance to watch the eclipse in the path of totality, where the moon completely blocked the sun. We watched with my wife’s parents at their Varina, Virginia farm where the sun was only about 80 percent eclipsed with the rest peeking from behind the moon. Still, it was spectacular.
The television news teams were stationed all over the place covering the event, especially along the path of totality. As we watched the coverage, a reporter interviewed an eclipse observer. The subject said he thought it was amazing that mankind had become so advanced over the centuries that we could know with certainty where and when the eclipse would occur. To him, it showed the intelligence and power of man.
I agree that one of the most striking things was the fact that we did know the day, hour, and precise minute the eclipse would begin, how long it would last, and when it would end. And even more amazing to a math-challenged, right-brain thinker like me was the fact that we knew precisely where on the spinning globe we call home you’d need to be to see the sun completely blocked by the moon and we knew the percentage of totality other areas would experience.
But I think the man on television missed the larger lesson. Yes, it is impressive that in the course of human history, we’ve advanced our knowledge and developed the tools with which to make such accurate predictions. Even more impressive, however, is that we live in a universe that is so ordered that we are able to make those predictions at all. In spite of the chaos we often see around us today (and often of our own making), the design of our world is a beautiful thing.
As a designer, whenever I recognize design, I know someone has been there ahead of me and set things in specific places for some purpose. Whether I’m reading a newspaper, using my smartphone, or simply walking down the street, wherever I go I’m surrounded by design. At its heart, design is an attempt to provide structure and bring order to some part of our world. Whether it’s organizing the news we read, providing a network through which we can rapidly communicate, or creating efficient and safe corridors for transportation, good design adds value to our world and is a hallmark of intelligence and creativity.
Once design is discerned, patterns often become apparent. When you approach a traffic light that’s yellow, you know what the next light will be. It never goes from yellow to green, despite how some folks drive. It always changes from yellow to red because that’s the way it’s designed.
The natural world is no different. We see patterns and other evidence of design all round us. When the leaves explode in their autumn reds, yellows, and other hues, we know what’s next. Like the traffic light, they’re not going back to green. The eclipse is just one, albeit an impressive one, of the countless signatures of The Maker upon His creation. When an artist signs his work, he makes a claim on that work, saying, “I created this.” So the God of heaven and earth says with every pattern we can see, “Look! I created all this—everything you can see, and everything you cannot!”
The apostle Paul’s letter to the Colossians (verses1:16-17) says, “…for through Him [Jesus] God created everything in the heavenly realms and on earth. He made the things we can see and the things we can’t see—such as thrones, kingdoms, rulers, and authorities in the unseen world. Everything was created through Him and for Him. He existed before anything else, and He holds all creation together.”
But even if we’ve never read a single word of the Bible, we know in our hearts that God is real and that He has made the world we live in. We know because we live in the middle of the evidence of His existence.
The New Testament book of Romans says this very thing in its first chapter, verse 20: “For ever since the world was created, people have seen the earth and sky. Through everything God made, they can clearly see His invisible qualities—His eternal power and divine nature. So they have no excuse for not knowing God.
Nine hundred years before Paul wrote those words, King David expressed a similar idea in Psalm 19: “The heavens proclaim the glory of God. The skies display His craftsmanship. Day after day they continue to speak; night after night they make Him known. They speak without a sound or word; their voice is never heard. Yet their message has gone throughout the earth, and their words to all the world. God has made a home in the heavens for the sun. It bursts forth like a radiant bridegroom after his wedding. It rejoices like a great athlete eager to run the race. The sun rises at one end of the heavens and follows its course to the other end. Nothing can hide from its heat.”
Poetic language describing the works of a massively creative God. An eclipse is one of His grand signatures across His creation. And for a few hours on August 21, 2017, that signature stretched across our country for all to see.
This week in the shop, I’ve got a new print (shown above) created from sketches I made during the 2017 eclipse. The image reminds me to stay open to seeing the fingerprints and signature of God all around me, and to remember Him not only as my creator, but as my sustainer and provider, too. You can visit the shop here and order your own copy today.