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Singing What We Mean

Posted around lunch time by Jackina Stark

The church gathered to worship last Sunday, and I enjoyed everything about it, including the singing.

The young man who led us had chosen some wonderful songs of praise, and once or twice I had to find a tissue for brimming tears. (And I found one, thank goodness. On occasions I’ve been reduced to using the hem of my jacket or long skirt.) The sound of the congregation singing was not what moved me; much of the time I could barely hear the people around me. It was the words we sang that moved me.

I pay attention to words.

There was an old hymn we used to sing, one that anyone under thirty, possibly forty, has probably never heard: “Work for the Night Is Coming.” As our congregation stood singing it one unfortunate Sunday night many years ago, a mental image of a phrase from that song got me tickled, so much so that my husband shot me “the look” I occasionally subdued our lively daughters with.

After all these years I can still hardly sing the song, and happily, I’m never asked to. The song exhorts disciples to work “‘til the last beam fadeth,” for the night is coming “when man’s work is o’er.” (“O’er,” for the unschooled in old fashioned or poetic language, would be “over,” though it sounds like something you mine.)

The old hymn, not of the great poetry ilk, is an enthusiastic, but very serious song, and I will never know why one of the phrases telling us when to work made me laugh—“Work,” the line goes, “mid springing flowers.”

I stood there that evening and thought about “springing flowers” while everyone else finished the song without any noticeable problem.

Okay, I mused, I might work ‘mid silly, bored, or even mildly disgruntled flowers, but forget working anywhere near a bunch of insidious flowers waiting to spring on people just trying to do their work. The image brought to mind a cliché, though I know to avoid them: “Hey, if you can’t trust a flower, what or whom can you trust?”

I can not say why I got so carried away with those words. I do know they comprise the only phrase from a sacred song that I can’t sing because they make me laugh.

There are other phrases and lines, however, that I have been unable to sing for a worse reason—the dreadful reason that if I had sung them, I would be lying.

I’ll explain that unhappy statement next week.


Bring Them Here

Posted around lunch time by Jackina Stark

Many of my students wrote wonderful essays, essays that blessed my life. Joel wrote one of them. He had come back to school on a Sunday afternoon with five dollars in his pocket and remembered he had not yet tithed on his fifty dollar pay check. He was happy that he had just enough in his pocket to give to the Lord, but he was worried because the school does not offer Sunday evening meals, and he knew he had no way to eat anything until the next morning. He knelt by his bed and prayed that God would take his offering and help him not snatch it back to combat his hunger. Before the night was over, our almost hilariously generous God supplied my student, through several different means, more food than he could possibly eat. His testimony of God’s goodness and care moved me, but what moved me as much was his offering to the Lord.

I read that and began to think a lot about kneeling before my bed with a sincere offering of my own.

Not long afterwards, I started reading the New Testament from Peterson’s THE MESSAGE. Two passages in Matthew made me think once again about bringing an offering to God.

The first one was in Matthew 14, the feeding of the 5,000. “All we have are five loaves of bread and two fish,” they said. Jesus said, “Bring them here.”

Those words echoed in my mind, actually, more in my heart, I think.
“All we have is. . . .”
“Bring them here.”
“All I have is. . . .”
“Bring them here.”

All I have? What do I have to offer?

I am slow to admit it, but the truth is, I have at least some writing talent, and my pursuit of fiction at this late date has been an act of faith; it has been an offering. I have been offering a few other things lately, too. We all have good things to bring him. Most of us have various talents, our education, financial resources, and ministry opportunities. These are just some of the things we can lay before Him.

I believe doing this will make all the difference in our lives in Christ. I wrote this prayer in the margin of my Bible by Matthew 14: “Lord I bring you what I have. Bless it, break it, and make it more than enough for anything you want me to do. Please. (And please let me keep bringing my “loaves and fish.”)

I may be different from you in another way, though. I hate this truth: Sometimes “all I have” doesn’t seem like much, for I have many weaknesses, maybe more than I have strengths. Strangely enough, Matthew 15 convinced me to offer him my weaknesses as well. “They came, tons of them, bringing along the paraplegic, the blind, the maimed, the mute-all sorts of people in need-and more or less threw them down at Jesus’ feet to see what he would do with them. He healed them.”

No one is going to throw us and our need before the feet of Jesus. But better than ignoring our weaknesses or lamenting them, would be kneeling by our bed and bringing those needs to Jesus, just as we bring him our strengths. We’ll have to put aside our pride and face our shame in order to do it, but it is worth it, for He will “heal” us. Whether it is through transformation or by forgiving us and covering us with his righteousness, his touch will make us whole.

I would encourage you today to bring him what you have—good and bad. Certainly it will make a difference for us personally, and it will make a difference to people in our lives who need to see His work in us.

Maybe those around us will be like “the people who saw the mutes speaking, the maimed healthy, the paraplegics walking around, the blind looking around—they were astonished and let everyone know that God was blazingly alive among them.”



A Rainbow Suitable for Framing: More On Moving On

Posted around lunch time by Jackina Stark

As I mentioned in “Moving On,” my last blog, I actually cried when I told the academic dean I was going to retire from Ozark Christian College after more than a quarter century of teaching there. In the two years of winding down that followed, I experienced recurring moments of sadness as I taught each of my courses for the last time.

In a way, the last semester of British Literature was sad every single class period. I had a wonderful group of students, including three jocks, two who liked me quite a bit and didn’t hate the poems we studied, and one who hung on for dear life the entire semester. Along with these three were many other students, several of whom enjoyed class. I loved them all.

I also loved the poems we discussed, and every single time I walked into the room, I was aware I was teaching one of them for the last time. So, goodbye, John Donne; goodbye, George Herbert; goodbye John Milton, etc. (Etc.? Forgive me, Wordsworth.) When we finished poems like “Hymn to God the Father” and “Batter My Heart Three Personed God” and “Love III,” I looked at the class, and they looked at me, and on days when restraint was my companion, I would keep it to a sigh.

For goodness sake, there was even angst the last day of Analytical Grammar. I think it’s safe to say during my twenty-eight years of teaching, I diagrammed millions of sentences. A quirk of mine was my need to erase the board before I left the classroom. It seemed a necessary consideration for the professor who would follow me. On the last day of grammar, however, I broke with this tradition. I started erasing, but students stopped to hug me on the way out of the room. When I returned to the board, I was drawn to the diagrammed sentence in the middle of it, surrounded by several others.

I decided that particular sentence summed up why I had taught all these years and represented the most important thing I wanted my students to remember. So I erased everything except that one diagram, put down my eraser, and looked at the sentence as though it were a beloved. Then gathering my things, I turned out the light and walked out of the grammar classroom for the last time. I like to think that sentence remains, at least in a figurative sense, giving teachers and students a reason for being there: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only son that whoever believed in him should not perish but have eternal life.”

The last classes I gave up were Comp I and Comp II. I had many of the same students in both classes, and they were exceptional. At the end of Comp II, I always had my students write a manuscript for one of the publications at Standard Publishing. I critiqued them, they revised, and I sent them off. Out of that class of twenty or so, at least five of them had their manuscripts published. Am I proud of them? You have no idea! They will be writing long after I’m gone, and I am thrilled.

Once or twice a week, I gave devotions in most of my classes, usually at the beginning of the hour. The last day of Comp II, I saved the devotion, the last of a series of six on the commitments of the cross, and gave it at the end of the hour. As I tried to get through it, one of my students felt compelled to hop up and raid Kleenexes from a nearby office to aid me in finishing the devotion called, of all things, “It is finished.”

When I completed the devotion, I made the sign of the cross and said “Peace,” my traditional benediction. Knowing I simply could not stand to watch this last class leave, I turned around and began erasing the board. But the students did not file out as I expected. Instead, as I erased, they began to clap. I hear it still, that sweet, tender sound of appreciation and affirmation. So I turned back around and watched them leave after all, hugging most of them before they got away.

I hope you don’t mind-I’m framing another rainbow.

I mentioned in my previous blog that I wrote a book celebrating parenting and called it Framing a Rainbow. I got that title from Lois Elliott Morse’s lovely poem, “Memories.” I had used that poem to close a journal I had secretly kept for the girls during their high school years. The speaker in “Memories” is filled with grief because she is afraid tomorrow could never be as wonderful as today. At the close of the poem, God, standing “at the end of the hallway that formed the art gallery” of her life, reassures her that he has more pictures than she could possibly frame. “‘Come,’ he beckoned. ‘We’ve only just begun.’”

I found that image very comforting and thought my daughters would, too. But, as I said at the end of the preface of my parenting book, even though all four of us would have many more pictures, or “rainbows,” to frame, the one of our time together was spectacular.

And so was the rainbow of my classroom and the students that filled it. I adored them, adore them still. I left them only because God, the father of us all, seems to be beckoning me to another rainbow suitable for framing.


Mourning and Moving On

Posted in the early afternoon by Jackina Stark

I taught English courses at Ozark Christian College for many years, and retiring last year was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. I loved the subjects I had taught with great enthusiasm, and I loved my students. Naturally I had to mourn.

Mourning is how I began a non-fiction book that College Press, a local publishing company, asked me to write twenty years ago. Framing a Rainbow is a celebration of parenting, but the first chapter is called, “My Heart Hurts,” a phrase my older daughter Stacey coined the summer after she graduated from high school. She said it when she, her sister Leanne, and I  spontaneously formed a group hug at the close of an annual camp for highschoolers we had always attended together—they were campers, I was on staff. We immediately adopted the phrase and have had several occasions to use it through the years.

“My heart hurts” certainly described me the day I left both girls in their college dorm room. This was true, despite the fact that I drove by their dorm every week day morning as I went to class and the equally amazing fact that I had both of them (gluttons for punishment?) in one of my classes. Anyone who has sent a child out of town or, worse, out of the state to college would have little sympathy for me. I understand.

But you must understand that, though I saw them often, the four of us no longer shut our door against the world each night and woke up together each morning to cope with that world or even to bless it. Tony and I didn’t hear them in their bathroom taking off their makeup every night, laughing about one thing or another. I couldn’t find them in their beds at night to kiss them goodnight, and if they were out late, they couldn’t come in and plop on our bed to tell us what was happening. Things would never be the same.

Oh, things would be good, very good (we love our sons-in-law and don’t get me started today on the grandchildren), but I had to mourn a lovely time that would never come again.

 So the day I left them putting the finishing touches on the dorm room they shared, I came home, looked at the rooms they had left behind, and then sat down on the sofa to try to grasp such an event. I looked up at a large wall portrait of them we’d gotten only the day before. In it they are leaning against a tree, looking off into the horizon. Stacey’s head is resting on Leanne’s shoulder as the sun breaks through the clouds and shines on both of them. It seemed symbolic.

And sitting alone on the couch that afternoon, I heard thunder begin to rumble outside, and that seemed symbolic as well. As did the black clouds and the wind and the sheets of rain that began to beat against the windows. Tony, my sweet husband, their dedicated father, was out, and I was half glad. I could cry in peace, and I thought it quite decent that nature mourned with me.

I also thought it decent that the storm was brief and that in just forty-five minutes or so the sun was shining in its full August glory. I decided that was symbolic, too.

I thanked God for all the symbolism. 

Of course, forty-five minutes would never do for the kind of mourning I would find appropriate for such a passage, for the emptying of the nest. But it may have been close to adequate since I had gone through the bulk of it the year before when Stacey left home for college while Leanne finished her last year of high school. Then, Leanne was as bereft as I.

Tony didn’t get it, not then and not a year later when I had to leave Leanne there, too, and drive home alone. He had kissed them goodbye when he had helped us load the car to set out on our three mile journey to OCC. He’s an Ecclesiastes kind of guy. For him it is true: there is a time for everything under heaven, including a time to live at home and a time to leave!

Well, okay then, as I like to say. But what a nut he is, as crazy as we are for thinking leaving home is a time to weep and mourn. Though in choosing happy and grateful acceptance, Tony has chosen the easier, far less messy way.

So my daughters, grown now with precious children of their own, were not surprised at what happened when I went in to tell Dr. Mark Scott, our academic dean and my friend, that I was going to retire after teaching at OCC for more than a quarter of a century. I cried. Can you imagine? I cried! I’m sure he wished I had sent a letter.

Well, why not shed a few tears? I was beginning the mourning of a precious time that would not come again.

Makes perfect sense to me.


Hello There

Posted terribly early in the morning by Jackina Stark

For any former students visiting this web site, I almost wrote today’s blog title this way: ”Well, Hello There!” Most of them know I tend to turn “well” into a two-syllable word and that I say it quite often—as a preface for almost anything or when I simply can’t come up with an appropriate or adequate response. For me, good responses, like good answers, require some serious thought.

I recently retired after thirty-one years of teaching, twenty-eight of them at Ozark Christian College in Joplin, Missouri. I needed more time and freedom to travel (visiting family and friends, speaking, encouraging two ministries in Cambodia) and, of course, more time to write.

Bethany House is releasing two of my novels in 2009—Tender Grace in January and Things Worth Remembering in October. This web site was developed so that former students and old and new readers can learn more about those books and any others that might come along. If you’re interested, you can also learn more about me, contact me to leave a note or to inquire about a speaking engagement, check my limited speaking schedule, or read my weekly blog.

I’ve made a blog available because my former students often ask for devotions I have given, and I’m sure my blog will contain some of that material and material much like it. I’ll be focusing on our relationships—with God and with the very human humans in our lives. Pretty broad, I know, but at least you know I won’t be talking about computer games, medical advances, or politics. My plan is to post on Mondays, starting February 2nd. I’d love for you to stop by.

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