All posts by Stephen

Authentic Thanksgiving

“Piglet noticed that even though he had a Very Small Heart, it could hold a rather large amount of Gratitude.” —A. A. Milne, Winnie the Pooh

A few thousand years before Milne wrote this observation about Pooh’s dearest friend, Psalm 50 records The Lord’s declaration to the whole earth on the nature of acceptable worship. God is pointing out that He does not want to be worshipped through outward displays — mere empty religious rituals. Unless we truly worship in our hearts, all the religious sacrifices and services are in vain. After all, The Lord says, what sacrifice does He need from any person? He owns it all. As verses 10-11 state, “For every beast of the forest is mine, the cattle on a thousand hills. I know all the birds of the hills, and all that moves in the field is mine.” [ESV]
The only thing we can truly offer to the Creator of the universe is a thankful heart and our obedience. Psalm 50:14: “Offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving, and perform your vows to the Most High …”
A heart full of gratitude and thanksgiving will naturally lead to outward expressions of worship, but they won’t be empty. They’ll be genuine and very pleasing to our Heavenly Father.
May your Thanksgiving this year be authentically from your heart, whatever size yours is because it turns out, Piglet had it just right.

The Secret to Peace From Philippians 4:8

Peace Like a River sculpture in the Salvaged Messengers series.

Next time you’re feeling tired, mentally fatigued or overwhelmed, just tell folks you’re hitting a little Fliegerabwehrkanonen. Ah, those wonderfully long German words. Fliegerabwehrkanonen is the word from which we get “flak”— exploding shells fired from anti-aircraft guns. No pilot wants to fly through flak, but we fly through mental flak almost every day.

Explosions—not of shell fragments—but of images, text, and sound bombard our eyes and ears, blasting their way into our mind. Emails (yes, like the one you’re reading), texts and instant messages merge with Facebook posts, 24/7 news blasts, and the latest cat video into a swelling spray of mental flak that shatters our peace.

Psychologists have coined various terms for this—information overload, infobesity, infoxication and others. Xerox produced an amusing video about it which you can see here.

But joking aside, mental flak can have negative consequences, deforming us into distracted, unproductive, ineffective and inattentive people.

We don’t have to accept this as the norm, however. God offers peace and rest—a place of quiet shelter, like a cave hidden behind a deafening waterfall. He invites us inside, encouraging us to refuse to be conformed to the world’s patterns and behaviors. He offers a different way because our Maker, after all, has His own perfect pattern for our lives. We don’t have to remain pinned down under a hail of mental flak. God promises that we can be transformed. We can have our tired, frazzled minds renewed.

This is one of the great treasures of Philippians 4:8. In it, we’re encouraged with these words: “ … whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”

In a world where we constantly receive information—often of the distressing variety—through an overwhelming number of channels, it’s more crucial than ever that we develop a habit of thinking on the true, the honorable, the pure, and anything that is praiseworthy. That’s part of the secret of not conforming to the patterns of fatigue and frustration that are so prevalent in our world. When we surround ourselves with things that build up rather than tear down—art, writing, music, other people—we’re putting Philippians 4:8 into practice. We’re also putting ourselves in a position where God can reprogram us, re-calibrate our sensitivities, and reinvigorate us. And that’s when we’ll experience genuine rest in the true peace that only comes from God Himself.

Grandma Ruby

My Grandma Ruby didn’t have a lot of money as she raised my mother and her two sisters and step-children in Pearisburg, a small town nestled in the mountains of Southwest Virginia. If her family was to have most anything, Grandma had to make it. From dolls’ clothes and furniture, to tablecloths to my mother’s feed sack dresses—Grandma crafted from necessity perhaps more than from a need to express herself. The few surviving pieces show a rugged utilitarian aesthetic, concealing a deep love of a mother for her daughter and a desire to provide both essentials and entertainment, even in the midst of want.

Throughout her life Grandma Ruby engaged in the arts and crafts, tatting well into her 90s. Even as dementia stole an increasing percentage of her faculties, she maintained her connection to creating things. One of the last things I was able to do with her, and for her, was to observe her hands move in a patterned rhythm as though she were pulling thread to create one last masterpiece, although her hands held nothing that you’d see. Taking a small loosely woven cloth, I pulled a few inches of yarn through several places in it and knotted the strands at both ends to prevent them from being pulled completely through. I gave that piece to my grandmother so she could actually feel the strings pulling through the material, perhaps giving her some comfort. But she didn’t take to it and in the end, a rough physical approximation was no match for the decades of creative memories she carried in her heart and head. When she passed in 2004, she left some treasured pieces of her work and a legacy of creativity and passion for arts and crafts in her children and her eight grandchildren, of which I am the second youngest.

What has been left for you that you treasure? What are you leaving for those who come after you?

Paw Umberger gave space for inspiration

My grandfather, Homer Blanton Umberger, was born and raised on the family farm in Wytheville, Virginia in 1897. The land had been given to his family as part of a land grant from the King of England many years before. My grandfather lived on that farm, the Reed Creek Poultry Farm, all his life. He married Margaret Dean and had one child, my mom, Marjorie Dean. She married my dad, Maitland Wassum. More than 120 years later, my mom and my brother’s family still live on that same farm today.

Growing up on the Reed Creek Poultry Farm, I guess I inherited my grandfather’s creative spirit and his love for animals. My family moved in when my grandmother got sick so that my mom could help take care of her. On the farm, we collected sap and made molasses. We made apple cider from the apples in the orchard. There were always baby animals of one kind or another. I got into a lot of trouble one day when I decided to let a whole bunch of baby ducks take a swim in my bathtub. Needless to say, mom was not happy.

My grandfather always gave me a space for my very own flower garden. Family and tradition ran deep and my love for all things creative grew along with everything else on the farm. There was a story to be told in every corner of that farm and my grandfather, well known in the area as a poet and artist, passed down many family stories through his poetry. He also developed a series of carvings from walnuts. These wonderful sculptures bring a smile to my face every time I see them and they remind me of the most important thing I learned from my grandfather: He loved to bring joy to people through his poetry and art and that’s my passion for my own work today.

A salvaged salvage trip: part 5

On the RoadGod leads us home

That night I was praying that God would lead us to a tire store that could help us. I looked up Merchant’s Tire and Auto and was relieved to see they opened at 9:00 a.m. Sunday morning. They were across town. Would the tires we had manage to hold up under the load of barn wood and get us there? Would they have the required tires in stock?

We prayed as we set out that morning. A little while later, we pulled into the lot at Merchant’s and a few minutes after arriving, we learned they had the tires and would get them on that morning.

We thanked God for His provision as we said the blessing over sausage biscuits at a nearby Burger King. While we waited for the tires to be changed, we walked around the shops nearby, keeping an eye on the old red pickup, which we could see up on the lift in the bay of the tire shop.

Around noon, the truck was off the lift and ready to roll. New tires all around.

As we paid the bill, Scott, who was manning the front office, asked me why I was hauling all that barn wood. Was I building something? I explained that I was an artist and was using the wood in sculptures. “Each sculpture is hand stamped with a Scripture,” I said. “I call them ‘Salvaged Messengers’ because I use salvaged wood that would be thrown out or burned up. And I think they’re a little like all of us. We are lost, in one way or another, separated from God and in great need of rescue. God has salvaged us through the sacrifice of His Son, Jesus Christ. He’s saved us from destruction and stamped His message of love and forgiveness on our hearts and lives. When we accept God’s gift of eternal life by inviting Jesus to be our Lord and Savior, we become living salvaged messengers ourselves.”

Hannah and I headed home to Hanover, praising The Lord for protecting us and providing for us at every turn. We saw up close what Nahum wrote about in the book that bears his name:

“The LORD is good, a stronghold in the day of trouble; and He knows those who trust in Him.” Nahum 1:7

A salvaged salvage trip: part 4

“I’d buy a flashlight…”

Walmart. It was ten minutes to eight. The auto center closed at eight. Could they help us? The manager looked at the truck and examined the tires closely.

If he could get the ticket in the system before eight o’clock, they would do it. Timothy was a young man working the register in the auto department. I thanked him for the help he and his manager were trying to give us.

He looked at me and said, “That’s God. I’ve seen him turn folks down.”

“Are you a believer?,” I asked. He said he was, and began to tell me how he’d seen God work in his life many times in the past couple of weeks. Timothy had just moved his family to Staunton from Petersburg. He told me that businesses were leaving Petersburg and there were heroine dealers on the street corners. He said, “I told my wife we are not raising our son in this town.”

So they moved to Staunton and lived in a run-down motel for a couple of weeks. He interviewed for the job at WalMart. He got it. A church helped them with expenses. They had been able to move to a better location. He was expecting his first paycheck within the week. It’s little wonder he recognized God’s hand at work in my situation.

The manager was back. After checking his stock, he said he had only one tire of the sort I needed, LTs. He put that one on, replacing the one that had failed. Then he told me that I might be able to make it to Richmond on the remaining tires — if I drove slowly. Then he debated with himself about the best route to take. The state route 250 would allow me to go slowly, but it was curvier and it was getting dark. I-64 was straight. Either way it was a risk. He suggested I buy a flashlight. We bought one, along with extra batteries, and paid for the tire.

Timothy clocked out and we went our separate ways. We thanked God for getting us to Walmart and for the new tire, but we had a decision to make.

I thought about it over dinner at Waffle House. Hannah was nervous about trying to drive back. I was nervous too. I didn’t relish the idea of becoming stranded on one of those long exit-less stretches of I-64 and sleeping in the pickup all night. I decided to stay in Staunton that evening and try again Sunday to get the rest of the tires changed. Hannah was relieved. So was I.

We drove slowly through the country roads to Motel 6 — not fancy, but better than the truck.

Part 5

A salvaged salvage trip: part 3

Please get us off the highway, Lord!

I could see on my phone that we were a little more than a mile south of the Glasgow exit, so we prayed that God would get us safely off the interstate and I proceeded to drive very slowly, emergency flashers on, toward the exit. We finally made it and pulled into an Exxon station. We thanked The Lord for His protection.

No one was on duty to help, but a man the station clerk had me call said he would send a tow truck driver to have a look, I told him I wasn’t going anywhere.

I began to try to remove the spare tire from its place beneath the back of the truck. It looked like it hadn’t been removed since just before Y2K, so it wasn’t easy. That’s when a young man named Dan walked over and offered to help. I guess it was becoming clear that this wasn’t my speciality, so, even though he was on his way to see that evening’s light show at Natural Bridge, he jumped in and in pretty short order the bum tire was off and the spare was on. Looking at the failed tire, I marveled that it had not blown when we were on the interstate. It was bulging in several places.

The tow truck operator showed up just as we were wrapping up. Looking at the old, worn spare and remaining tires, he advised taking it very slow and trying to make it to Staunton, about 50 miles away. Once there, he suggested getting a new set of tires from either WalMart or Merchant Tire, whichever was open.

Hannah and I thanked God for Dan and the advice and we prayed for God to get us safely to Staunton.

We headed north again, slowly and this time on Route 11, the main Shenandoah Valley thoroughfare. We drove over Natural Bridge, which is hidden from view by a short wooden fence along either side of the road. We passed Hull’s 1950s-style drive-in theatre, non-profit, community-owned, and packed that evening with cars and people on tailgates and blankets to see the movie.

We drove on slowly, watching the dusky valley landscape pass by. And praying.

Part 4

A salvaged salvage trip: part 2

Eric on Price's Farm

My cousin Eric on his family’s farm. The 1905-era barn is behind him, along with the pile of wood to be salvaged. In the distance are the gorgeous green rolling hills of Giles County, Virginia.

Deep in the mountains

The ride started off well enough, but a small omen of trouble ahead came when the passenger-side windshield wiper came loose during a heavy cloudburst as we made our way west in I-64 out of Richmond. Hannah remained calm and collected as I pulled over under a bridge and she got out on the safer side and quickly retrieved the wiper unit before it fell off the hood. Thankfully, the driver’s-side wiper remained attached.

We drove on. I especially enjoyed seeing Hannah’s reaction to the sights as we made our way deeper into the Southwest Virginia mountains, crossing the Blue Ridge mountains and entering the Appalachian ridge and valley region. Her every “Wow, Look at that!” took me back to my own wonder at what the local population lovingly refers to as “God’s Country,” as well they should. The Creator’s loving fingerprints are on grand display wherever you look. 

We arrived Friday around twilight and enjoyed the chance to visit with my aunt Ann, uncle Harold, Eric, and Kyle, who is often there working on the farm on the weekends.

Saturday morning we loaded the old barn boards onto the truck. Whatever I didn’t take from the pile would become kindling for my aunt and uncle this winter. I was sorry to not have room for every single board but the truck was full and I didn’t want to overload the older tires with such a long trip back home.

Old Price Home

The house my mother was raised in. This was “Grandma Ruby’s house” of my childhood. My PawPaw built the house himself. The old toilet just off the bedroom in the lower right of the house was loud and used to scare the daylights out of me.

Hannah and I said our goodbyes and left around 2:00 p.m. Saturday. On the way back I showed her the house where my mother grew up, one of three simple homes my grandfather, or PawPaw, as we called him, built on a steep hill. Hannah took some pictures through the truck window as we drove along. 

In downtown Pearisburg we walked around. It’s always smart to carry cash in small towns. I didn’t have any and could only scrounge $1.65 from the cupholder in the truck. But the snow cone stand attendant gave me a price break on a cone for Hannah. “Oh, that’ll do,” she said of the coins I offered. She piled up the shaved ice and poured on the strawberry syrup. Small towns.

The truck handled well as we made our way northeast with the load of salvaged wood securely strapped in the bed. At Blacksburg, we spent 30 minutes or so driving around the campus of Virginia Tech. We have more than a few Hokies in our family and I wanted Hannah to see the school that was often the topic of discussion, especially when football season was in full gear.

We headed north on I-81. The sky was blue, hills were green, and traffic wasn’t too bad. A couple of miles before the Glasgow/Natural Bridge exit, however, something went wrong. Suddenly the truck began to shake violently. I thought we had a flat. Those tires were too old to trust after all. But pulling off to the side, I didn’t see any sign of a flat tire. I tried to go on, but the same bumping and shaking started again.

Part 3

A salvaged salvage trip: part 1

Photo of a century-old red barn in Giles County, Virginia

Demolition of a rear section of this barn provided a variety of wood for sculptures.

The trip begins

On Friday, July 10, 2015, I set out from Hanover County late in the afternoon for Pearisburg, my mother’s hometown in Southwest Virginia. Along for the ride was my oldest daughter, Hannah, 11. My cousin, Eric, had told me that he was tearing out part of his family farm’s old 1905 barn. He is trying to save the barn from being pulled down the Giles County hillside it has majestically overlooked since 1905. The view from the barn is gorgeous. Lush green hills swell and drop, to lift trees and rocks up toward the sky or cradle them in gentle pockets with the occasional pond.

I have many pleasant memories of childhood visits to that barn. My sister and cousins and I played, rode ponies and horses, and had the run of the farm when we were Hannah’s age. It was a magical place. Anything was possible there. it was in that barn that Eric convinced me that I could jump from the hayloft into a very small pile of straw he had brushed together. I did well to escape with only a sprained ankle. It was in a field near that farm that I convinced Eric that I could drive a truck. He agreed and I had my first auto accident. I drove my uncle’s green Ford Courier pickup truck into a telephone pole guy wire. The wire sliced into the plastic and light metal hood of the truck. But it also prevented me from sailing down an embankment into the old clapboard home of Sam Eaton. I did well to escape with only a summer’s worth of yard cutting to help pay for the damaged truck. I was 10.

Now I was glad for the opportunity to visit this side of my family again and to salvage some of the wood from a place that has meant so much to me.

We were driving my father’s red 1993 Ford pickup truck, which is in pretty good condition with the exception of the radio, or so I thought. I suspected the five-hour trip would challenge Hannah who has grown up being able to enjoy a portable DVD player on long trips like this. When I was her age, we simply counted cows and buried them when we passed a cemetery, or raced through the alphabet reading signs and license plates on nearby cars. 

I needn’t have worried, though. Hannah was a superb traveler. We talked. She took pictures of the scenery with my phone. She texted reports from the road to her younger sister and a friend when we had a good signal, which was not always the case. It was a little like riding with a contemporary young Edward R. Murrow.

Part 2

Wires & wood

Wooden sculpture of Jonah in the whale

This Salvaged Messenger sculpture shows Jonah in the belly of a whale. Whether it was a whale or a fish, as some translations say, Jonah was hard at work praying to God. And who wouldn’t be praying in that situation? What’s your whale?

This Salvaged Messenger sculpture shows Jonah in the belly of a whale. Whether it was a whale or a fish, as some translations say, Jonah was hard at work praying to God. And who wouldn’t be praying in that situation? What’s your whale?

What are Salvaged Messengers?

Salvaged Messengers is the name of a series of sculptures created from found and reclaimed wood — wood that was destined for the the trash heap or the fire. That’s the “salvaged” part. Each sculpture is imprinted with a message from Scripture or an encouraging or challenging thought inspired by God’s Word. That’s the “messenger” part. Salvaged Messengers are also the drawings and sketches that become part of the birth of a sculpture. And, at their heart, Salvaged Messengers are you and me, and anyone else who has a heart to receive and share the love that God has for His creatures. The heart of God’s message is always love. John 3:16 is perhaps the most well-known verse of the entire Bible. “For God so loved …” is the way it begins. What did God love? “… the world …” it continues. How much did He love the world? So much that “… He gave His only Son …” And why would God do that? So “…that whoever believes in Him would not perish, but have eternal life.” That message of hope and love is the reason why John 3:16 is the most well-known, most frequently quoted verse in all of Scripture. The most well-known hymn has a similar message. “Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound, That saved a wretch like me. I once was lost but now am found, Was blind, but now I see.” John Newton knew the truth about himself and all people. We are lost and headed for destruction — totally separated from God. But God loves us and desperately wants a relationship with us. Through the sacrificial death and resurrection of His Son, Jesus Christ, He finds us and reclaims us for Himself. He salvages us and imprints on our hearts His message of love. No matter what you’re going through today, God loves you and desires to have you move closer to Him. He can and will salvage the parts of our lives we find to be the most hopeless. We are His works of art — in progress — but being sculpted and painted by the Master Himself. Salvaged Messengers — courtesy of a saving, loving God.