All posts by Stephen Rountree

New series inspired by “Amazing Grace!” in the works

Salvaged wood sculpture by Stephen in progress.

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

Olney Hymnal with "Amazing Grace!"

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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Shining Like The Sun in progress…

No greater love

Wire crucified hand set in white pickling-washed salvaged barn wood with hand transferred text.

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:

  1. 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 …
  2. 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.
  3. 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).

Read more about No Greater Love in the shop.

What are you fishing for?

"Fishing with My Dad" wire and paper sculpture

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).

Tight lines and a great catch to you!

A signature in the sky

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.

Hoping to keep up with these glasses for the 2024 eclipse.

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!”

Sketches of the progression of the solar eclipse of 2017.

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.

Finding forgiveness

What’s the opposite of unforgiveness? Forgiveness? Well, grammatically, yes. But simply adding the “un” doesn’t help us get at the core questions—and answers—about unforgiveness. Why do we harbor unforgiveness? Why do we struggle to forgive? Why is it sometimes so hard to genuinely let something go?

Volumes have been written and preached on this topic. In practice, where actions, emotions, and life-altering events impact our present circumstances and potentially shape our futures—just as we impact others and shape their futures—it can seem complicated.

The Secret of Gratitude salvaged wood, rotating sculpture.

Life is full of real situations with genuine injuries and deep hurts, and It’s not my intention here to imply that forgiveness is easy. Reading this won’t enable anyone to suddenly forgive deep hurts that may have scarred their lives. I do believe, though, that there’s value in contemplating the topic because forgiveness, and the withholding of it, has serious consequences.

In the sixth chapter of Matthew’s gospel, Jesus teaches His disciples how to pray. Countless Christians regularly recite what has become known as “The Lord’s Prayer” in worship services around the world. Recall these words from verse 12 of the chapter: “And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.” A couple of verses later, Jesus explains, “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” Serious consequences.

Think for a minute about past hurts you’ve experienced or caused. What most affects our capacity to forgive? Is it the degree to which we’ve been wronged? Is it our relationship with the offender? Is an injury by a stranger easier to forgive than a hurt inflicted by a close friend or family member? What effect does the passage of time have? Does time really heal all wounds?

Recently, the United States was rocked by two mass shootings. Unfortunately, news of these types of tragedies is all too common and certainly not new.

In October 2006, Charles Roberts invaded a one-room schoolhouse in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, shooting and killing 10 Amish schoolgirls. In stark contrast to other similar incidents, the Amish community didn’t cast blame, lawyer up, or hit the talk shows and social media. Instead, they extended grace and compassion toward the family of the killer. Even in the immediate aftermath of the shooting an Amish grandfather of one of the victims expressed forgiveness toward the killer. Later that week, the family of one of the Amish girls who had been killed invited the Roberts family to the funeral of their daughter. And at the funeral of the shooter, Amish mourners were said to have outnumbered non-Amish attendees.

More recently, on June 17, 2015, Dylann Roof, a white supremacist, entered a prayer service at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, and killed nine people. Some of the families of the victims extended forgiveness to the killer in the wake of his deplorable, racially motivated killings.

It seems unfathomable that anyone could forgive in situations like these. Are these pictures of radical forgiveness, or examples of forgiveness working as intended by God? Amid such violence, grief and torment, what creates the capacity for forgiveness?

And for every inspiring story of forgiveness, there seem to be countless more of unforgiveness. The New Testament shares accounts of both. For example, the apostle Paul pleads for reconciliation in Philippians 4:2, where he writes, “Now I appeal to Euodia and Syntyche. Please, because you belong to the Lord, settle your disagreement.”

A lesson from the Creator of the Heart

Forgiveness seems to be an issue of the heart, and no one knows the human heart like the One who designed it. Colossians 1:15-17 tells us plainly that “… through [Christ] God created everything in the heavenly realms and on earth. He made the things we can see and the things we can’t see … Everything was created through Him and for Him. He existed before anything else, and He holds all creation together.” So when Jesus teaches about forgiveness and the human heart, it’s a lesson we want to hear.

The gospels record many instances where Jesus spoke about forgiveness. Let’s look at two of them. The first is found in Matthew 18:23-35 (Read the whole passage here).

In this passage Jesus told a parable, a story about a servant who owed his king a sum of money equivalent to wages from about 60 million working days. When the king called the debt, the servant could not repay, so the king ordered the servant and his whole family be sold to help pay it. Then the servant fell to his knees before the king and begged for more time. Jesus said the King was filled with pity for his servant and simply forgave the entire debt.

That’s a compelling example of forgiveness, but Jesus didn’t end the parable there.

The forgiven servant then met his fellow servant who owed him just three or four months worth of wages. When he demanded payment, his fellow servant fell down before him and begged for more time, just as the forgiven servant had done before the king. But instead of granting forgiveness, as he had been given, the forgiven servant had his fellow servant thrown into prison until he could repay the debt.

When the king learned of this injustice, he called his forgiven servant to appear before him and said, “You evil servant! I forgave you that tremendous debt because you pleaded with me. Shouldn’t you have mercy on your fellow servant, just as I had mercy on you?”

Jesus concluded His parable with these words: “Then the angry king sent the man to prison to be tortured until he had paid his entire debt. That’s what my heavenly Father will do to you if you refuse to forgive your brothers and sisters from your heart.”

The second passage, in Luke 7:36-50, provides a powerful contrast to the previous parable. Here Luke records Jesus’ visit to the house of a religious leader, a Pharisee named Simon (Read the whole passage here).

Luke writes, “When a certain immoral woman from that city heard he was eating there, she brought a beautiful alabaster jar filled with expensive perfume. Then she knelt behind him at his feet, weeping. Her tears fell on his feet, and she wiped them off with her hair. Then she kept kissing his feet and putting perfume on them. When the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would know what kind of woman is touching him. She’s a sinner!”

Luke says that Jesus “answered his thoughts” by telling him a story about two people, one who owed a large amount, and one who owed a smaller amount. Both of their debts were forgiven by their creditor. Jesus asked his host, Simon, “Who do you suppose loved [their creditor] more after that?” Simon replied that the one who was forgiven more would love more. Jesus affirmed his answer and then contrasted Simon’s lack of hospitality toward Him with the woman’s expressions of love. He explained it to Simon like this: “I tell you, her sins—and they are many—have been forgiven, so she has shown me much love. But a person who is forgiven little shows only little love.”

A key to enable forgiveness

What is the key difference between the wicked servant and the humble woman at Jesus’ feet? Jesus said the woman loved a lot because she had been forgiven of a lot. We see her extreme and very public display of love toward Jesus. That great display of love is the evidence of something she had that the wicked servant lacked. The servant was no doubt relieved to have his impossible debt cancelled, but his heart seemed to be unchanged by the forgiveness he received. So instead of expressing his love, he selfishly proceeded to shake down one of his fellow servants.

What’s the true opposite of unforgiveness, then? What can enable, even compel me to forgive—and love—today?

The answer may be hidden in plain site through the contrasts of these two accounts. Genuine forgiveness may just hinge on gratitude. The accounts in Matthew and Luke offer us snapshots of two hearts. One empty and one overflowing. Lack of gratitude for the forgiveness we’ve been given drains the heart, leading to unforgiveness and selfishness. Gratitude fills the heart full to overflowing and leads to generous forgiveness, which may be a beautiful byproduct of gratitude. Genuine, seemingly radical gratitude will spill out of a full heart in ways that appear astonishing to onlookers. Forgiveness will be granted in impossible situations.

Are you trying to scoop up a teaspoon of forgiveness from a drained heart? How can we fill our hearts with gratitude? Can we learn to cover the Master’s feet with genuine tears of thanksgiving for our blessings, our lives, and our new standing before God (if we’ve trusted in Christ’s death as the payment for our sins)?

Those are things to be genuinely thankful for, aren’t they? Meditating on those powerful thoughts can produce genuine gratitude that will cause our hearts to overflow. And what will spill out will be just as authentic: forgiveness and blessing instead of unforgiveness and selfishness—a pleasant aroma instead of a bitter stench.

See The Secret of Gratitude rotatable sculpture new in the shop this week.

A true friend

Photo booth picture from 1971

“Wilbur never forgot Charlotte. Although he loved her children and grandchildren dearly, none of the new spiders ever quite took her place in his heart. She was in a class by herself. It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer. Charlotte was both.”

E.B. White, Charlotte’s Web

There are few things more inspiring than true friendship. Who’s your true friend? If you’re immediately thinking of someone specific instead of searching your mental rolodex, consider yourself blessed. If you’re thinking of more than one person, know that you have been blessed from full to overflowing.

Today is my sister, Pam’s 50th birthday. I don’t think she’d mind me sharing that with you. Some of you reading this know her. Others do not. But what I want you all to know about her today is that she is, always has been, and always will be my true friend.

Born 21 months apart, we have grown up and grown older together.
I have a lifetime of good memories, but want to share a few snapshots.

Early years

Pam and I shared a childhood in a home in the woods on a dirt road with parents who loved us and loved The Lord. Our father enjoyed gardening and our mother froze and canned what he grew. And in addition to enjoying the fruits of his labor, we were especially fond of the moist dirt clods he’d turn up with the first tilling of each new season. More than a few evenings were spent in friendly combat as we battled with the clods, hurling them at each other in the twilight before being called in for baths.

Even as kids, she cared enough to help me invest in the creative process. When I needed a model to draw a comic book character I had dreamed up, Pam was there, donning a ridiculous outfit and posing for my reference photos.

For years, Pam took piano lessons from Mrs. Ruby Bosher, who taught scores of students throughout the Hanover countryside. She was the best and Pam is part of her legacy. Pam’s gone on to be a wonderful music teacher herself, as well as a pianist, accompanist, arranger, composer, singer, and church music and choir director for adults and children. When we were kids, Pam tried to teach me piano, but I only lasted for one lesson. I should have stuck with it.

With Bonnie, a neighborhood friend, we started a detective agency. Inspired by more than a few Encyclopedia Brown mysteries, we had plenty of cases fueled by our imaginations, but only one paying case—from a neighbor, who’d lost the gas cap to his tractor and offered us a dollar to track it down. Our detective mettle was tested, but failed and the mystery has long since been filed under our “cold cases.”

Our dad built us a treehouse and later, a log cabin at the edge of the woods. We added on to both of them with bamboo and scrap wood. The creative process can take varied forms with infinite outcomes—in our case at that time, what emerged was a bamboo veranda off the side of our log cabin.

Archive notes are sparse, but this is no doubt an important meeting of the SPB Detective Agency held on the bamboo veranda of the log cabin. Pam looks like she’s just figured out the solution to our toughest case, but she hasn’t; we never solved any. The design drawings for the veranda have, sadly, been lost to the ages. This was well before the advent of selfies, so the photo is by Mama Rountree, the official detective agency photographer.
Growing up, moving out

After high school, Pam and I both attended James Madison University. She majored in music. I studied communications and journalism with a side of graphic design. We shared some friends and also had our own circles. We also shared a wonderful little green, 1973 Volkswagen Super Beetle. The license plate read, “2TREES,” which was all of “Rountree” we could fit.
When I moved to California to work for a newspaper, Pam was one of a small handful of people who made the trip out to visit me—twice.

Pam and Stephen in San Fransisco, 1991
Twenty years after the photo booth picture, we’re vacationing in San Fransisco with our parents in 1991. She had just graduated from JMU that May and would soon start teaching. I was already working for a newspaper in Southern California.

Later, when I worked as a news artist for U.S. News & World Report in Washington, D.C., I lived with Pam and her husband, Stuart for more than 10 years, renting a basement room. My schedule allowed me to be in Washington for just three nights a week, so I split my time between there and my home in Hanover. I got to watch my sister as a young mother and enjoy the time with my oldest niece and nephew as toddlers on through elementary school.

In some seasons of life we and our families have seen each other frequently. In others, circumstances have made visits more sporadic. And of course, we’ve exchanged many gifts over the years, but Pam has given me two gifts that I will always treasure. The first arrived on the day of the first performance of a small play I wrote a few years ago. It wasn’t a big production (she’s produced far bigger ones), but Pam sent me flowers. Men don’t typically get a lot of flowers. But she cared enough about what I was doing to send them. Whenever I remember that production, I think of those flowers, and my sister.

She gave me the second gift when I turned 50—a collection of thoughts and wishes from some of my close friends. It was such an encouragement to read and I appreciated her not waiting for my funeral to put together such a nice compilation.

True passion inspires

Pam and I haven’t always done the same things, but we’ve shared a consistent and deep commitment to faith, family, and the arts. Her passion for all three inspires me to this day. Since our early years, Pam has always been there for me—as a listening ear, a cheerleader, a speaker of challenging truth, and an advocate. That’s what good sisters—and true friends—do.

I began this post with a quote from the closing lines of E.B. White’s classic, Charlotte’s Web. It’s fitting to end with an adaptation of his very last line, certainly one of the most satisfying of any closing line written in modern literature. So of Pam, I’ll say, “It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good sister. Pam is both.”

A gift for Pam on her 50th (shhh—don’t spoil the surprise!). Good Sister is a sculpture of salvaged wood (finished with white pickling stain) and wire with hand-transferred lettering. It’s created with wood from the barn where Pam and I played as kids with our Southwest Virginia cousins on our Aunt’s and Uncle’s farm. Apologies to E.B. White.

Now it’s your turn! Whether it’s their birthday or not, what inspires you about your true friend? Share your thoughts with us here at Inspiring Handmade using the quick comment box below. Just leave us your name and email and a comment about your friend. If you’re in a sharing mood, let us know that it’s okay to use your quote in an upcoming post and specify if you want your name included in the posted article or not. We’re not out to embarrass anyone—only to encourage ourselves and you to think on all things good, right, noble, praiseworthy, excellent, and true—including true friends!

Fifty years ago today Apollo 11 took Neil & Buzz—and Communion elements—to the moon

Image of Apollo 11 Communion sculpture

On July 16, 1969, the Apollo 11 mission was launched from Florida’s Kennedy Space Center at 9:32 a.m. EDT.

Today marks its 50th anniversary. Newspapers, magazines, and the Internet are full of remembrances of the event that captivated the attention of the world as Neil Armstrong and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin, Jr. became the first humans to set foot on a celestial body other than earth.

What was not as frequently reported at the time—and not as often remembered today—is that the first liquid poured and the first food eaten on the moon were the elements of communion, the bread and the wine that Jesus Christ commanded His followers to take in memory of Him until He returns (Luke 22:19-20).

After Armstrong and Aldrin landed the Eagle at Tranquility Base on July 20, there were a few hours of rest scheduled before they opened the lander’s hatch and made their historic descent onto the lunar surface. Aldrin, an elder at Webster Presbyterian, just outside of Houston, used a few moments of that down time to observe The Lord’s Supper.

Aldrin wrote about the experience for Guidepost magazine, explaining that he and his pastor, Dean Woodruff, “had been struggling to find the right symbol for the first lunar landing. We wanted to express our feeling that what man was doing in this mission transcended electronics and computers and rockets.”

“I wondered if it might be possible to take communion on the moon, symbolizing the thought that God was revealing Himself there too, as man reached out into the universe. For there are many of us in the NASA program who do trust that what we are doing is part of God’s eternal plan for man.”

Aldrin and his pastor planned the communion celebration together. Aldrin explained, “I could carry the bread in a plastic packet, the way regular inflight food is wrapped. And the wine also–there will be just enough gravity on the moon for liquid to pour. I’ll be able to drink normally from a cup.

The astronaut’s pastor even provided the cup, which he showed to Aldrin, who tested its weight. “I hefted it,” he wrote, “and was pleased to find that it was light enough to take along. Each astronaut is allowed a few personal items on a flight; the wine chalice would be in my personal-preference kit.”

image of the personal kit for Buzz Aldrin.
Apollo astronauts could carry small personal items to the moon. The Communion cup and bread rode along with Aldrin in his kit.

Pastor Dean made plans for two special communion services at Webster. One would be held with Aldrin, just before he left Houston for the launch at Cape Kennedy. “The second,” Aldrin wrote, “would take place two weeks later, Sunday, July 20, when Neil Armstrong and I were scheduled to be on the surface of the moon. On that Sunday the church back home would gather for communion, while I joined them as close as possible to the same hour, taking communion inside the lunar module, all of us meaning to represent in this small way not only our local church but the Church as a whole.”

Aldrin wrote that he gave considerable thought to the passage of Scripture he would read for the occasion before settling on John 15:5, in which Jesus says, “I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in Me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from Me you can do nothing.” “It seemed to fit perfectly,” Aldrin wrote, adding, “I wrote the passage on a slip of paper to be carried aboard Eagle along with the communion elements. Dean would read the same passage at the full congregation service held back home that same day.”

Both sides of the card containing the Scripture and Aldrin’s prepared comments for the lunar communion service. According to Heritage Auctions, which listed the handwritten card in a 2007 auction (It appears to still be available), “The verses [Aldrin] would have liked to have read [publicly, over the air, from the moon] are found at the top of [one] side of this handwritten card: “An [sic] Jesus said, ‘I am the vine, you are the branches. Whoever remains in me, and I in him, will bear much fruit; for you can do nothing without me.’ [John 15:5]” There are additional, and very appropriate, verses beneath in a different ink that Aldrin did actually quote three days later during a TV broadcast by the astronauts aboard Columbia the evening before they splashed down safely in the Pacific. He writes: “Psalm 8: v. 3,4 ‘When I consider thy heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars, which thou has ordained; What is man that thou art mindful of him? And the Son of Man, that thou visitest Him?'” Photo from Heritage Auctions, HA.com

After the historic landing, as the men prepared for the next phase of their mission. Aldrin spoke to the ground crew back on earth. “I would like to request a few moments of silence,” he said. “I would like to invite each person listening in, wherever and whomever he may be, to contemplate for a moment the events of the past few hours and to give thanks in his own individual way.”

Aldrin described the scene in his own words:

“In the radio blackout, I opened the little plastic packages which contained the bread and the wine. I poured the wine into the chalice our church had given me. In the one-sixth gravity of the moon, the wine slowly curled and gracefully came up the side of the cup. Then I read the Scripture [Jesus’ words in John 15]: ‘I am the vine, you are the branches. Whosoever abides in me will bring forth much fruit.’”

Armstrong observed quietly but did not participate.

Aldrin continued, “I had intended to read my communion passage back to earth, but at the last minute [they] had requested that I not do this. NASA was already embroiled in a legal battle with Madalyn Murray [O’Hair], the celebrated opponent of religion, over the Apollo 8 crew reading from Genesis while orbiting the moon at Christmas. I agreed reluctantly. I ate the tiny Host and swallowed the wine. I gave thanks for the intelligence and spirit that had brought two young pilots to the Sea of Tranquility. It was interesting for me to think: the very first liquid ever poured on the moon, and the very first food eaten there, were the communion elements.”

It’s also interesting to realize that some of the first words spoken on the moon were the words of Jesus Christ, who made the earth and the moon — as Colossians 1:16-17 tells us, “For by Him [Christ] all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through Him and for Him. And He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together.”

Fifty years on, the lunar missions remain among the most reported and analyzed events of our—or perhaps, any—time. They still fascinate, inform, and inspire us. And for Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin, Jr., and several of his pioneering colleagues, they were not only a triumph of science and engineering, and humanity’s first steps into the cosmos. They were something more—a chance to see the creation and appreciate The Creator with renewed awe and wonder.

Postscript:
Over the years, Aldrin has described his Communion experience on the moon several times, including an August, 1969 interview with LIFE magazine, an October, 1970 Guideposts article, and in his 1973 book, Return to Earth. Webster Presbyterian Church will hold its 50th Lunar Communion Celebration later this week, on July 21, 2019. Learn more here.

A “fowl” lesson for quitters like me

Percy, the persevering rooster is hand-carved from wood and crows at the impending day. Acrylic painted accents.

A few years ago my family and I traveled to Costa Rica to visit my wife’s sister, Nancy, where she and her husband, Sean, serve with Cru in Central and South America. It was my first trip south of the U.S., and Costa Rica was full of new sights and sounds. But one familiar sound greeted me every morning—a rooster. Without fail, that Costa Rican bird crowed around the same time early each day just before it was getting light. I’m not a morning person, but I would like to have a little more of one of his characteristics: perseverance.

Roosters, more than any other animal, are known for greeting the dawn. In fair weather or foul, hot or cold, wet or dry, in all kinds of circumstances, when a new day starts to dawn, they’re going to announce it with their cock-a-doodle-do, just the way God designed them to. Back in 2013, Japanese researchers made the news when they determined that instead of depending on external cues from their environment, roosters use a built-in circadian clock to help them crow on time. It’s as if they’re designed to persevere, announcing each new day, regardless of what’s going on around them.

Am I any different? God has designed me to be in relationship with Him. The Creator and the created—in communion together. He also has designed me to do good works. In the New Testament, Ephesians 2:10 spells it out very clearly, saying, “For we are God’s masterpiece. He has created us anew in Christ Jesus, so we can do the good things he planned for us long ago.”

Like the rooster, God has built in me the ability to do what He has created me to do. And it’s in the perseverance of the rooster that I see a difficult lesson. Too many times I don’t persevere. I get tired or frustrated. My circumstances are tough. It’s raining. It’s cold. So I give up on doing those good things I was created to do—the good works that God planned long ago for me to do.

Sometimes that looks like giving up on praying for others, or on praising God. I can always pray later, can’t I? Sometimes it looks like giving up on lending a helping hand. I’m too busy, after all. It looks like a lot of things, but what it doesn’t look like is perseverance. In the apostle Paul’s second letter to the Thessalonians (verse 3:13), he writes, “As for the rest of you, dear brothers and sisters, never get tired of doing good.” That suggests that we are, in fact, inclined to get tired of doing the good things that we have the opportunity to do. We might have great intentions, but our interest wanes, or other needs create demands on our time. The good thing we set out to do do becomes difficult and we lose momentum.

It’s been said that too often, we give up right before we are about to succeed. The big breakthrough—that extra measure of energy, of contentment, that resolution to a thorny dilemma, is just over the hill, just around the corner, just one day away. But I give up—we give up—just before we see it. I created Percy the Persevering Rooster to remind myself that if a rooster can get up every morning and do what he was created to do, surely I can too. Maybe he’ll remind you, as well. Persevere!

Check out Percy strutting his rooster stuff in the shop! Just click the button below.

The power of a good book

Image of Quiet Solitude, a sculpture in wire and cut paper on driftwood.

“It is what you read when you don’t have to that determines what you will be when you can’t help it.”

Oscar Wilde

The quote above from Oscar Wilde, who was not known for weighty, serious comments, is worth taking seriously. Summer is now in full swing and while it’s become known as the season of the blockbuster movie, it was, and is still also known as the season of books.

“I will never forget the first “big kid” book I read,” says Patti, who’s Wire People sculpture, Quiet Solitude, is an autobiographical work recalling her days as a young girl captivated by a well-told story. Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm was given to me by my great aunts in 1966 and I couldn’t put it down.

Image of a book that Patti enjoyed as a young girl
Patti enjoyed “Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm” as a young girl

It was around that time I decided I wanted to be a teacher. Many years later, that book was on my bookshelf in my fourth grade classroom. I often wondered how many students would read it and love it as much as I did.”
Maybe you have your own summer reading list. Whether you’re beach bound for a much-needed vacation or just looking forward to a few lazy days at home, it’s the perfect season to dive into something new or finally finish something you started in the winter.
The challenge is usually what we’ll read. My mother is a member of a book club. She enjoys working with the group to decide what the book of the month will be and ensuring that there are enough copies at area libraries for the group members. She appreciates the structure of the book club, explaining that she ends up reading books that she wouldn’t otherwise read and enjoys the variety that each member’s tastes in literature bring to the group.
Meanwhile, I have a friend who prefers to read on her own. She reads constantly, but values her independence and moves quickly from one book to the next.
We’re all different, aren’t we?
The sobering thought for me is that I’ve realized that no matter how fast I read, I won’t live long enough to read all the books I have, let alone all the books I want to read. I have—we all have—a limited amount of time. Psalm 90:12 says, “Teach us to realize the brevity of life, so that we may grow in wisdom.” What will I read during the increasingly brief time I’ve been given? When I think of it like that, it somehow increases the gravity of my choices. Will I read inconsequential fluff, or worse, complete trash that, like cholesterol-laden junk food clogging my arteries, fills my mind with trite or leads me into thoughts and attitudes that are contrary to God’s word?
My nephew just graduated from high school. He concluded his outstanding valedictory address with this piece of advice: “Read old books.” And he meant really old books—as in Plato’s Republic, written around 380 BC. I agree. And just as important as age is message.
The driving purpose behind Inspiring Handmade is to create art and writing that leads us into our own Philippians 4:8 moment. In his letter to the church in Philippi, Paul wrote, “And now, dear brothers and sisters, one final thing. Fix your thoughts on what is true, and honorable, and right, and pure, and lovely, and admirable. Think about things that are excellent and worthy of praise.”
Even if we’d rather not think about the brevity of life, we know that summers fly by, don’t we? The summer of 2019 will be over almost as soon as it begins. In no time, we’ll start seeing the fall catalogs arrive and after Labor Day, it will be just one more memory—hopefully a good one!
But what will we do with this limited handful of days? Will we use them to feed on a great book that draws us closer to God? What are you reading this summer? If you have a great book that you know would encourage other readers, don’t keep it a secret—share it in the comments below! And while you’re at it, please share Inspiring Handmade with someone you love and know would love what we do here. You can read more about Patti’s piece, Quiet Solitude, here.

The key to answered prayers

Image of a hand-woven pine straw basket by Patti Jones featuring a hand-made base with writing by Stephen Rountree and a Scripture from John 15:7

If you have a red letter Bible, you’ll see that every single word in chapter 15 of the Gospel of John is in red. Certainly, as the apostle Paul wrote to Timothy, “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness…,” but the entirety of John 15 is direct teaching by Jesus and He’s sharing the secret of how to pray prayers that get answered. This is important to know whatever the color of the text!

The chapter begins with Jesus, God the Son, explaining His relationship to God the Father and to us, using the metaphor of a grapevine. John 15:1-4 says, “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit. Already you are clean because of the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me.” (English Standard Version).

Jesus then reaffirms that He, himself is the vine and we are represented in the metaphor by the branches of the vine. God the Father wants us to live fruitful lives. John 15:5: “I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.”

That’s a pretty strong statement, but then Jesus explains in John 15:7 what this really looks like in practice: “If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.”

That’s an even stronger—and more amazing—statement! Jesus Christ Himself promises that if we remain, or abide—live, dwell, rest in—Him, and if we allow His words to remain, abide, live or dwell in us, then we can pray prayers that will be answered. But before we start picking out the new car or boat we’ve had our eye on, we should understand exactly what Jesus is teaching.

There is a two-part condition, two big “ifs” followed by a result of meeting those conditions. If we consistently live a life in relationship with Jesus and consistently meditate on His word, depending on it to genuinely guide our decisions and everything about our lives, then we’ll see our prayers answered.

John 15:8 adds that a fruitful life, including answered prayers, is a hallmark of being a true follower of Jesus: “When you produce much fruit, you are my true disciples. This brings great glory to my Father.” The last part of that verse explains why all of this is the way it is: To bring glory to God, which is one of our primary reasons for being created in the first place.

A mid-17th century teaching from English and Scottish theologians and church leaders known as the Westminster Shorter Catechism comprises 107 questions and answers about God and His word. Our Presbyterian friends know well the answer to the first and most famous question of the catechism: What is the chief end of man? The answer: Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.

Both parts of that answer, glorifying and enjoying, are addressed by Jesus in John 15. In verse eight, Jesus explains that when we produce a lot of fruit, through a life full of answered prayers, among other things, God is glorified.

And when we see our prayers answered by God, we cannot help but enjoy Him all the more. Just consider the Facebook feeds of friends who you know post not only their prayer requests, but also the results of those requests. More times than not, prayers that come from a heart that meditates on the things of God and is therefore aligned with God and in step with His Spirit, will see answers according to His timing. And a funny thing happens when we abide in Christ and allow His words to abide in us—we’re less likely to be concerned with getting that new car or boat. As John Piper wrote at his blog, Desiring God, “The words of Jesus abiding in us make us the kind of persons who are not dominated by natural desires, but are devoted to fruit-bearing for God’s glory.”

Don’t we love to focus on the second half of John 15:7? “…ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.” But if we do that, we risk missing the real joy of a relationship with God through Christ, and we forfeit the key to answered prayers. The true secret and power of prayer is found in the big “if” conditions: “If you abide in Me, and My words abide in you…” (emphases are mine). Only when these two conditions are true in our lives will we see evidence of the second part of Jesus’ statement: “ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.”

It all comes down to abiding. If we stay close to the One who can answer our prayers, we’ll not only be in tune with Him enough to ask for the things He’ll be delighted to give us, but there will be no wall between us to make it awkward when we do need to ask for something.

Instead of asking ourselves why God won’t answer some of our prayers, should we be asking different questions? Like, “where am I abiding these days?” “What am I meditating on lately?” “Am I as close to the Answerer of Prayers as I would like to be?” If you are, how do you keep close? This post has just scratched the surface of this topic. We’d love to hear your thoughts on what abiding looks like in real life. Drop us a note using the box below.