Category: Scripture

What’s your whale?

In the familiar account of Jonah in The Bible, we read that God assigned Jonah the unenviable task of traveling to Ninevah (modern-day Mosul in Iraq), to tell the Assyrians that they were about to be judged and obliterated by God unless they repented and turned from their wicked ways. Instead of obeying God and delivering the unpopular message to a vicious nation that many historians say was among the first superpowers of the ancient world, Jonah likely saw his assignment as a suicide mission. So he ran.

That decision wound him up in the belly of the “great fish” and then Jonah himself had to repent and realign himself with God.

Fast Foward

We all make bad decisions like Jonah at some point. A good friend of mine says “good judgment comes from experience … which usually comes from bad judgment.” But experience alone isn’t the ultimate teacher. Proverbs 2:6 says, “For the LORD gives wisdom; From His mouth come knowledge and understanding.”
Our bad decisions probably won’t land us in the belly of an actual whale like Jonah, but they can entrap us just the same.

So, what’s your whale?

Do you feel trapped today—stuck in the belly of something? What’s your whale? Maybe it’s grief. Or self. It could be some form of addiction, or anger, or pride. It doesn’t really matter what it is. What matters is whether we want to get out and how we escape.

Once Jonah realized where he was, his response was to pray to God. He went straight to the source of wisdom and God heard him and answered him. As a result, he was released from his whale and was given a second chance to do what God wanted him to.

Available in the shop

I’ve explored the idea of Jonah through a sculpture that’s now available in the shop. Called simply Jonah, the salvaged wood sculpture is painted in acrylics and hand stamped with the text of Jonah 2:1-2. It reminds me that no matter how dire my situation, I can always turn to God, call out for help and He will hear me.

And as long as we’re on the subject of whales…

“No, you two go on and have fun. I’d just be a third whale.”

A new song

New Song sculpture by Stephen Rountree

A new year. A new decade.

100 years ago, our nation was entering what became known as the “Roaring Twenties.” It was a time of economic and cultural growth and prosperity.

As we ease into the 2020s, I’m wondering if these will be the “Roaring Twenties” for me creatively and spiritually. Will I see new growth in those areas of my life this year? I’d like to. Maybe you would, too.

A vision for 2020

Lately, I’ve been meditating on Psalm 96. It’s short—just 13 verses—but it’s packed with big ideas that make it worth dwelling on in these early days of the new year. I’m using it as a guide for my goals—my vision—for the year, maybe the rest of my life. Depending on how you might count them, there are around seven calls to specific actions in this Psalm.

• Sing a new song to the Lord
• Bless His name
• Tell others about His salvation
• Give God the credit He is due and tell others about His glory and marvelous works
• Praise the Lord and rejoice because of the Lord
• Fear the Lord (as in holding Him in proper reverence and awe)
• Worship the Lord with all your heart in reverence

You can read Psalm 96 for yourself here.

Inspired to create

This Psalm has inspired the first sculpture of 2020, which I’m calling New Song.

This piece is created from salvaged oak barn wood from a circa 1905 barn in Southwest Virginia. You can see the barn and read more about that here.

I’ve taken one of the old oak planks, cleaned it up, and cut off the parts I didn’t need. I sanded it, painted a landscape on it and hand-transferred the first verse of the Psalm onto it. It reads, “Oh sing to the Lord a new song; sing to the Lord, all the earth!”

In essence, I’ve given this old piece of oak a new song. It was part of a barn for many years—more years than I’ve been alive. Then it was part of a pile of scrap wood, destined for a landfill or a fire.

But now it will have a new life as a piece of art that carries the words of God on it. Its new life will be totally different than its old one. The old oak wood will be in someone’s warm home instead of exposed to the harsh mountain weather. It will be appreciated on a deeper level than it was before. And it will be able to inspire thoughts about God and life in ways that it never could before.

That’s a lot like what God does with people. He finds us, remakes us, and gives us a new purpose—His purpose. Our new lives, which are possible because of Jesus Christ’s work in us, are infinitely more satisfying than what we could have imagined before. As Jesus Himself says in John 10:10, “… I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.”

Making it real

If I put into practice the calls of Psalm 96 this year, I believe this will be the start of the Roaring Twenties for both my creative and my spiritual life. So my goal is to offer God my creative projects (like this blog) in new ways this year—offering them for His purposes to share His works and His message. Exactly what that looks like, I can’t say at this point, but I want this year to be productive and full of praise for the ultimate Creator.

How about you? Would you like to start your own Roaring Twenties this year?

Why not join me in meditating on Psalm 96 this week and think about how you might put some of those calls into action. I’d love to hear your ideas! You can always reach me by email here. I’ll return to this topic in future posts to consider what some of the calls from Psalm 96 look like in practice. For instance, singing to the Lord sounds easy enough, but what does the “new song” refer to? How, exactly, do I give God the credit He’s due, or tell others about His marvelous works?

Stay tuned!

New Song is now in the Inspiring Handmade shop, ready to inspire in a new home.

New Song sculpture detail
Detail of New Song, by Stephen Rountree

Share your thoughts on Psalm 96. What would your year look like if you put some—or all—of those calls into action?

Walking on water in 2020?

Wood and wire sculpture

What do you want to do or become in 2020? For those who like to set goals, the new year inevitably brings with it the talk of resolutions. Some folks aim to lose weight, eat better, or get in shape. Others will strive to read more, or start—or finish—that book they want to write.

You’re reading Inspiring Handmade (thank you!), so perhaps you have a creative project in mind. Will 2020 be the year you try a new type of art? Or take what you’ve learned in the past to the next level? What could that look like? What will you create this year? What stories will you tell?

Chances are, if you play it safe, doing the very same things in the very same ways, you won’t meet your goals, create the art or stories you envision, or become what you want to be.

How can you stretch yourself this year? That’s a question I’ve been asking myself. I want this next year to be a productive one, especially in the area of creativity. I want to create new art, in new ways. I have new stories I want to tell through a variety of media. Maybe you can relate. This blog is all about being inspired through and for creativity—inspired to dwell on things that are good, excellent, and praiseworthy (see Philippians 4:8), inspired to create works that communicate those attributes, and inspired to surround ourselves and feed our minds and spirits with work that helps us focus on those things.

What we’re all pursuing is fulfillment, isn’t it? That’s what all the resolutions, goals, plans, and creative works are about if we boil it down.

The secret to fulfillment

And here’s the secret that’s become more clear to me over the years: We’re the most fulfilled when we’re fulfilling our created purpose. I believe that purpose is to glorify God and enjoy a relationship with Him forever.

With that big idea in place, a lot of other things start to make sense. We’re all created in the image of God, the master Creator. Is it any wonder that we also find joy in creating? My art is simply an extension of—and an avenue to fulfill—my purpose. Yours can be, too.

For me, then, it’s vital that I remain connected to my Creator. I can see a direct correlation between the time I spend in prayer and reading God’s Word and the volume and quality of my creative ideas and output. Quite simply, when I’m reading and meditating on the types of things described in Philippians 4:8, the ideas sometimes come in such a flood that I can’t capture them all.

But being in the presence of my Creator is risky. He loves me, but He’s also intent on changing me. I’ve shared about that in more detail in a previous post. It’s challenging and often uncomfortable. Part of me doesn’t like change. But that’s where the creativity comes from. The more closely I relate to my Creator, the more like Him I become and that certainly includes increased capacity for creativity.

A strange incident on a rough sea

The pastor and author, John Ortberg, entitled one of his books, “If You Want to Walk on Water, You’ve Got to Get Out of the Boat.” The title is a reference to a passage found in the gospel of Matthew. Chapter 14:22-33 is a fascinating account of a strange event that occurs right after Jesus fed thousands of people with only five loaves of bread and two fish. After the crowd had eaten their fill, Jesus’ disciples collected 12 basketfuls of leftovers. Matthew continues his account this way, describing Jesus sending His disciples to the other side of the Sea of Galilee:

“Immediately He [Jesus] made the disciples get into the boat and go before Him to the other side, while He dismissed the crowds. And after He had dismissed the crowds, He went up on the mountain by Himself to pray. When evening came, He was there alone, but the boat by this time was a long way from the land, beaten by the waves, for the wind was against them. And in the fourth watch of the night He came to them, walking on the sea. But when the disciples saw Him walking on the sea, they were terrified, and said, ‘It is a ghost!’ and they cried out in fear. But immediately Jesus spoke to them, saying, ‘Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid.’ And Peter answered him, ‘Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.’ He said, ‘Come.’ So Peter got out of the boat and walked on the water and came to Jesus. But when he saw the wind, he was afraid, and beginning to sink he cried out, ‘Lord, save me.’ Jesus immediately reached out His hand and took hold of him, saying to him, ‘O you of little faith, why did you doubt?’ And when they got into the boat, the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, ‘Truly you are the Son of God.'”

Dwelling on this passage inspired the last piece of art I’ve created in 2019, a work that casts an eye toward the new year. Pictured above, it’s called Water Walker, a sculpture in salvaged oak barn wood, hand-painted in acrylics, with wire, white pickling stain, and distressed, hand-transferred lettering.

Making it personal

There have been many lessons drawn from the account of Jesus helping Peter walk on the water. Personally, it challenges me to realize that if I really want to grow in any area of my life, I have to step out of my safe, comfortable place and old habits, and, most importantly, stay connected with and focused on my Creator.

When I do that, I find the creativity, the passion, the energy, and the fulfillment I’m looking for. I find myself walking on the water. How about you? Do you hear the invitation to step out of your boat in faith, trust, and expectation? What do you want to do in 2020 that might require stepping out of your boat?

Be inspired throughout 2020 and beyond

If you’d like more inspiration or would like to inspire someone special, Water Walker is waiting for you in the Inspiring Handmade shop. Give yourself—or someone else—the gift of original art to inspire new things in the new year.

Hand-painted wood and wire sculpture

What would you give for true joy?

cartoon of a traveling snowman

This week is the third in the season of Advent. My last two posts have looked at the hope and peace of Advent. This week, the theme is joy and I’m sharing another Christmas card from my archives. I did this one in 2006, before there was TSA Precheck. If you travel by air at all, it’s a safe bet you don’t associate airport security with joy. But at least you don’t have to remove your eyes and nose. Yet.

When we think of that original Christmas journey made by Mary and Joseph from Nazareth to Bethlehem, we might think more about the hardships they faced—a young, pregnant woman making the 70-to-80-mile journey with her husband, a journey that could have taken four or five days.

Someone once suggested that the account of Mary and Joseph’s trip to Bethlehem just goes to show that traveling during the holidays has always been difficult! I think they might be onto something.

What does true joy cost?

But as I’ve been thinking about joy this week, it struck me that as difficult as their journey may have been, and as many comforts as they may have left behind, Mary and Joseph suffered all of it for the joy of not only becoming parents, but becoming parents of the promised Messiah.
It seems to me, that in every case in Scripture, when people decided to pursue true joy, that is, the joy of knowing Jesus Christ, they had to leave something behind.

A pattern emerges

We see the same truth revealed in the life of the disciples, don’t we? The disciples, Peter, Andrew, James, and John exchanged a lifelong career of fishing for food for the joy of fishing for men on behalf of Christ. The apostle and gospel writer, Matthew, exchanged the lucrative job of collecting tax money for the joy of collecting souls for Christ.
And the pattern repeats throughout Scripture, but there’s no better example of this than Jesus Himself.

As a member of the Trinity, God the Son was and is always in perfect union with God the Father and God the Holy Spirit. They’re always in perfect harmony and to be with them must be a deliriously wonderful place to be. Yet God the Son left it all. Why? For joy. Hebrews 12:1-2 says: Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. There was joy in doing for His children what we could not do for ourselves.

Leaving heaven

Philippians 2:4-8 says it another way, “…Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though He was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.  And being found in human form, He humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”

Imagine leaving heaven, where you were constantly worshipped, to go to a place where you were constantly attacked, misunderstood, maligned, complained to, complained about, and ultimately tortured and executed in the most gruesome manner imaginable—all to rescue the very people who did all that to you.

And yet, that’s what our Savior did for us. He gave up all the majesty, glory, and comfort of heaven for the joy that was set before Him—the joy of rescuing us, His children from our slavery to sin and giving us a new, regenerated life in Himself.

What about us?

Today, He offers us that true joy of knowing Him and drawing true, everlasting life from Him. To accept that offer from Him, we’ll have to leave something behind. However, we don’t have to accept the offer. We can continue to cling to what we have, what we can do for ourselves—our own will and our own agenda. We can choose those things instead of joy if we want.

C.S. Lewis writes that there is always something some people insist on keeping, even at the price of misery. There is always something they prefer to joy.

So we can cling to whatever we would rather have instead of joy. Or we can relax our grip, and follow Jesus’ example and experience the true joy of belonging to Christ.

Back to that snowman…

The poor snowman in my illustration had to part, if only briefly, with some rather personal and important things. But he did it for the joy of getting to wherever snowmen fly during the holidays.

Have you ever thought about letting go of whatever you’ve been clinging to and reaching out to grasp true joy—the waiting hand of Christ, who loves you more than anyone else ever could? There’s no better season to do it than this one.

Feel free to get in touch using the box below if you want to talk about it. It would be my joy!

sketch for snowman card
Snowman traveler sketch

Plastic peace?

Snowman family at dinner

Artificial, plastic trees. Artificial icicles and artificial snow. Maybe even artificial smiles amid the stress of the holiday season? And all of it with the goal of somehow generating genuine peace.

But all the plastic, and glitter, and presents in the world can’t conjure up peace at our dinner tables or in our own homes, much less for the whole earth. There is someone, though, who is able to bring real peace. Angles announced His birth more than 2,000 years ago with the proclamation, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.” (Luke 2:14).

This second week of Advent focuses on peace, but not the plastic, artificial peace we try to create for ourselves. The advent—the anticipated arrival—of Jesus Christ, the Son of God and Prince of Peace, changed everything and opened up the way for us to experience real, lasting peace.

Isaiah 9:6 from the King James Version says it the way most of us remember it: “For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace.”

We can start the celebration of Christmas as early as we want to and drape our homes in enough lights to be visible to the crew in the space station, but until we know and trust in Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace, the best we’ll have is plastic peace.

If plastic peace isn’t enough for you, hear the definitive words of Romans 5:1: “Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.”

That’s the real peace and praise of Christmas and the real reason we celebrate. With Christ’s arrival at Christmas and His death on the cross at Easter, which secured our forgiveness and tore down the wall between God and us, we have been offered a gift. Romans 6:23 describes it like this: “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Eternal life—and peace—with God instead of eternal suffering separated from Him and His love and blessings—now that’s something to celebrate all year long.

If you’ve never trusted in Christ as your personal Lord and Savior, and you’re tired of artificial peace, drop me note using the contact below. I’d be happy to share with you how you can know genuine peace by knowing the Prince of Peace. What better Christmas gift to yourself?

A hippopotamus for Christmas?

Remember that song, “I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas”? It was a novelty song written by John Roxby. The version most of us know is the original recording by 10-year-old Gayla Peevey, which climbed to number 24 on Billboard magazine’s pop chart in December of 1953. Through the years, the song has been covered by a wide range of entertainers, from The Three Stooges to Captain Kangaroo to the Jonas Brothers.

As I’ve been thinking about this first week of the season of Advent, a hippopotamus, of all things, has been on my mind. I’ve started sketching what I think she looks like. She’s not the one Gayla sang about, though. This hippo’s name is Hope. I’m calling her, “Hope, the Hopeful Hippo.” And she reminds me of the season of Advent because it’s a season of hope.
From children hoping for that special gift, to parents and grandparents hoping to gather far-flung family members home for a visit, hope is a central theme of Advent and the Christmas season.

But the deepest hope of Advent is not the common, sometimes vain, kind of hope that we experience every day, as in, “I hope it doesn’t rain before I get the grocery shopping done,” or “I hope this checkout line I’ve committed to will move quickly.”
No, it’s an expectant hope, anticipation rooted in trusting that something wonderful is about to happen. Do you know the kind of hope I mean?
The deepest hope of Advent is based on the promises of God. Bible scholars have identified more than 500 verses that refer directly to a promised personal Messiah. The fifty-third chapter of Isaiah contains several references to Him. The promised arrival of a Savior, a Rescuer of God’s people is one of the primary themes of the Old Testament. The revelation of Jesus Christ as that Messiah—Emmanuel, God with us—and the invitation to trust Him for this life and life in eternity is the message of the New Testament.

“The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.”

Our Rescuer, in John 10:10

Through Jesus, God has rescued us from our rebellious natures. The guilt and shame of our past—every decision, action, and careless word that we regret—all those and more are no longer counted against us at the very moment we trust Jesus Christ as our Savior, our Rescuer. At that moment God declares us “not guilty!“ And at that moment, hope, the surest hope in the universe, comes rushing in.
Did you know that godly Hope also has a twin sister? Her name is Assurance. And they’re inseparable because wherever godly Hope is, you’ll find Assurance. So when Hope moves in at that moment of our renewal through Christ, Assurance is right there with her—Assurance of forgiveness; Assurance of eternal life; Assurance of God‘s power through the Holy Spirit to help us live the life He intends for us. Assurance that God loves us—so much.
And if you want proof of that love, look no further than a lowly manger where, more than 2,000 years ago, God sent his one and only gift of supreme love, special delivery, to light up a dark world. That’s the Hope—and Assurance—of Advent and the Christmas season.

Well, if you’ve got that hippopotamus song stuck in your head now, you might be interested to learn a little more about how it came to be, and what Gayla Peevey did after her big hit. You can do just that at her website (which may be in the running for the world’s longest URL): www.iwantahippopotamusforchristmas.net. You can also see 10-year-old (and the more current 73-year-old) Gayla performing the song in the video below.

Hope, the Hopeful Hippo just might break out of the sketchbook to become a carving in the same family as Percy the Perserving Rooster. Stay tuned!


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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.

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.

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.

Arc of the Summer Moon

The Arc of the Summer Moon door topper is an original sculpture from salvaged 19th century oak barn wood. Acrylic paint, salvaged wood, cut wood.

In ancient times, the Israelite king, David, wrote, “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they reveal knowledge.” Created from salvaged 19th century oak barn wood and hardwood cut from the woods near the artist’s studio, The Arc of the Summer Moon door topper is an original sculpture capturing the peaceful twilight of a summer evening. The moon’s low, lazy arc across the sky is a reminder of the arc of our lives. As it appears to rise up out of the earth, so we were created from the soil of earth, formed by the hand of God Himself, made in His own image, and filled with life from His own breath. And as the moon sets, it looks to us as if it returns to the earth, just as we will—dust to dust.
But in between its rising and setting, it does one thing superbly well—it reflects the light of the sun, and in doing that, it brightens our evenings and nights, spilling its light into the darker places, inspiring, and freely sharing its beauty with any who will glance its way. And isn’t that a picture of what God has designed each of us to do?

This piece by Stephen Rountree is created with acrylic paint, salvaged wood, cut wood and hand stamped with the opening words of David’s Psalm 19, “The heavens declare the glory of God.” Wherever it’s displayed, it is a uniquely beautiful reminder of this timeless truth: We get one arc across the sky—one life. And it’s not how, or when, we rise or set, but how well we’ve reflected the light of Son along our way.