Under the Tulip Tree

When Lorena Leland awakened October 29, 1929, she was full of excitement about the day ahead. It was her sixteenth birthday and along with it came the dreams she had for an exciting life as a writer. Born into a successful Nashville family whose father was a banker, she imagined herself at the grand party to be held at a hall in the city that night, but her life would take a sharp unexpected turn that she could never have anticipated.

By mid-afternoon news of the stock market crash in New York City was the center of conversation, but Lorena paid little heed to the news because they lived in Nashville and certainly it would not impact them the way it was hitting so many in the northern city so many miles away. When the telephone rang and her mother answered it, it was evident to everyone in the house that their expectations were not what would happen. Her mother’s screams foretold the truth – the head of the household and bank of this prominent family was calling to share the bank notes had collapsed and they had lost everything. What that would mean and how each person would respond unfolds in the pages of Michelle Shocklee’s 2020 novel, Under the Tulip Tree.

The measure of our character and the evidence of our values is never more exposed than when we are hit with a crisis of incredible proportions. What we have relied on and trusted in is revealed, at least to others whether we see it at the outset or not. For some, the choices made will result in a path forward marred with more despair and hopeless attempts to soothe the pain. For others, unexpected changes in the course of their lives will uncover parts of their stories, their histories, they never knew, and, in those discoveries, they may discover the hand of God at work even though they have no strong faith in Him.

The dreams of being a writer and working for the leading newspaper in Nashville look like an opportunity to make some money, but Lorena discovers that her father’s reputation has been so tarnished that the connection she had with that paper is lost to her. The weight of how far-reaching the crisis is hits Lorena with a powerful blow, but then she is told about a possibility she did not want to consider. The WPA has a Federal Writer’s Project and her contact at the newspaper agrees to give her a recommendation to be considered. It’s a far cry from what Lorena dreamed of and far from prestigious, but the financial collapse the family is facing gives her courage to consider it.

When she learns she will be hired and what the assignment entails, Lorena (Rena) is uncertain about whether she can or wants to go forward. Her mother’s disgust and discouragement for Lorena to do this adds to the drama. She fears the family reputation will be tarnished further.

What is the assignment?

President Roosevelt has created the program to ask writers to interview former slaves to learn more about what their lives had been like prior to the Civil War, as well as during and after it. It would mean going into parts of Nashville (Hell’s Half Acre) Lorena had never seen nor experienced to interview a list of persons given to her and then writing up their stories. Segregation was the rule of the time and though the family had always had some servants to work for them, Lorena had no experience beyond what she had learned in school about what she was about to hear.

The first name on the list is a 101-year-old woman, Frankie Washington. What happens when Lorena and Frankie meet results in unforeseen impacts on the lives of everyone in this powerful story exposing betrayal and redemption that no one saw coming.

This is a novel which you ought not to miss or dismiss simply because it is a novel. The WPA Federal Writer’s Project existed, and Michelle Shocklee has read many of the stories and her work in this book reflects words anyone can glean from regarding the impact of an unexpected crisis, how hatred can destroy lives, and that prejudice and bias can be birthed in any one of us no matter our culture or socio-economic status.

Is It Really A Stage?

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William Shakespeare wrote the five-act comedy As You Like It that was published in 1623. A few lines from that classic are found in a well-known speech that begins:

”  All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players…”

William Shakespeare

No, I have not been reading Shakespeare of late, but his words came back to me as I was reading a portion of “the Sermon on the Mount” in the Gospel of Matthew today in The Message contemporary rendering of Chapter 6 done by Eugene Peterson. He entitled the beginning of the chapter “The World is Not a Stage” and that set me to pondering the words penned by Shakespeare that sound so logical in contrast to Peterson’s heading to this chapter.

Most of us might agree that we play various roles on the earth after we are born and the word “roles” might suggest that we are truly actors on a stage, but that would diminish each of us and the biblical narrative we read throughout the pages of the Bible. In biblical text we are unique individuals created by God, called to a purpose with choices that influence the path we take as well as some of the roles we have along the way.

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Actors on a stage do not speak words of their own choosing nor are they often representative of the person speaking them at all. Actors speak words written by one person, directed by another person who interprets and determines how each scene will be played out to the tiniest detail. They will determine our entrance and exit, what we will wear, how we will speak the lines written, and with what emphasis they will be accentuated. Actors will be tasked with making the character written by someone else as authentic as possible, but they themselves will not be authentic in their performance on stage or screen. It will be a performance, nothing more. And what is a performance?

A dictionary says this: “a rending of a role, song, or piece of music” as one of the definitions of performance.

Are we only living life as a performance? So much of what we do from childhood onward seems to focus on reaching some level of performance for every level of academic pursuit from early childhood onward. It is true in pursuing sports or music activities and later it is present in the career paths or jobs we pursue. Little wonder that we can get caught up in the way we do something and lose track of the more important things such as whether we are called to do them, how we do them, and if they represent our authentic selves and the character we are.

God’s story in the Bible tells us we are called to be salt and light, to live out the reality of loving Him and loving one another including our enemies – things that are impossible to imitate.

In the current era it seems harder to determine who is imitating and who is authentic. Insecurity and cultural norms drive us to be, say, and act in certain ways to be accepted by those around us. Instead of living out our unique path we can be drawn into seeking to be like others that someone somewhere has decided is the model that is the best choice. But if we are all the same, then why is any one of us needed for something since anyone can do what any one of us can do?

So what then is Peterson suggesting about the opening verses of Matthew 6 that points to why the world is not a stage and should not be? Here is the rending that follows his heading:

“Be especially careful when you are trying to be good so that you don’t make a performance out of it. It might be good theater, but the God who made you won’t be applauding.”

“When you do something for someone else, don’t call attention to yourself. You’ve seen them in action, I’m sure—‘playactors’ I call them—treating prayer meeting and street corner alike as a stage, acting compassionate as long as someone is watching, playing to the crowds. They get applause, true, but that’s all they get. When you help someone out, don’t think about how it looks. Just do it—quietly and unobtrusively. That is the way your God, who conceived you in love, working behind the scenes, helps you out.”

Matthew 6:1-4 (MSG)

These are a rendering of the words of Jesus in the famous passage of his teaching describing how those who follow Him, and his teachings are to live. They paint a very different picture than what we might be given from the culture around us. Culture nudges us forward to do good things and then be celebrated for those things as is our reward. Consider how Charles Spurgeon looks at this:

“We must not copy the loud charity of certain vainglorious persons: their character is hypocritical, their manner is ostentatious, their aim is to be seen of men, their reward is in the present. That reward is a very poor one, and is soon over.”

Charles H. Spurgeon

No, the world is not merely a stage with us as players of different roles, puppets being fed lines to speak and stage directions to follow. The applause of men, the acceptance of the culture by adopting cultural norms that vary over time, is not the purpose or goal of us as created humankind. If we were to look backward a short 50 to 100 years and seek to play out the norms, we would find ourselves contorted in multiple directions because they have changed in so many areas and so many ways. To suggest these changes have all been for our good or the betterment of humankind would be a hasty judgment.

Peter points the path to consider:

“So roll up your sleeves, get your head in the game, be totally ready to receive the gift that’s coming when Jesus arrives. Don’t lazily slip back into those old grooves of evil, doing just what you feel like doing. You didn’t know any better then; you do now. As obedient children, let yourselves be pulled into a way of life shaped by God’s life, a life energetic and blazing with holiness. God said, “I am holy; you be holy.”

1 Peter 1:13-16 (MSG)
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The Last Word

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It can be easy to get caught up in the minutiae that make up most of our days. They nibble away through each hour telling us that we’ll have time later to make that phone call or visit, write that letter or apology. We got caught up in the dailyness of life, of making our points as we can, of wanting to be heard, and sometimes in getting the last word.

Some of us have no need to “have the last word” as they say. We keep our dearest opinions to ourselves and play our cards close to the chest, but even so there can be times when we feel so strongly that we step out of that role and attempt it. And it seems that increasingly often more and more people are seeking to have that last word, to insist on their opinion or right, but what does that goal mean?

According to the Collins dictionary, it means the following:

“If someone has the last word or the final word in a discussion, argument, or disagreement, they are the one who wins it or who makes the final decision.”

Collins Dictionary

This desire or tendency does not seem to be one we need to be taught. It appears to be part of the human DNA since we so often see it in young children as they play together or compete for the toy they want or the person’s attention they seek. Parents and teachers seek to train us to manage that tendency and it seems to work for some, but others are still going strong by their teenage years and beyond. A quick stop at any social media site or news outlet will show you that we live in a time when winning at any or all costs is all that matters to some (even if winning means destroying someone or something else more precious than the thing being fought for).

Are we so lost in the minutiae that we have forgotten the power we wield when we put those “last words” out there?


Are the words we speak or shout at others, ones that we would be able to hear and find some value in them? Would they cause us to think more deeply, consider a new perspective, alter an old bias or would they stoke the embers of old wounds, prejudices, and anger that would produce in us the same response we hate so much from someone else that is directed toward us?

Have we forgotten that we will need to give an account for our words – if not in this life, in the one hereafter? We so easily toss them around at times that it would seem we very well may have forgotten that reality.

Matthew’s Gospel gives us a clear reminder:

“But I tell you that everyone will have to give account on the day of judgment for every empty word they have spoken.”

Matthew 12:36 (NIV)

We may well have forgotten that what falls from our lips speaks to what fills our hearts and swirls around in our minds.

We can be brought to immediate attention by the last words of someone who is leaving us either for some assignment or in death. It is then that we will often pause to consider what we most want to say. We don’t want to miss reminding that person that we love them or perhaps that we are sorry for something that we have not addressed before that moment. But it is much harder to remember that none of us can say or know when what we say will be the last words someone else will hear. Whatever we may say at such a time will likely be remembered for longer than we might imagine.


If we seek a model for someone who made every word count, every word matter, and had no regrets when his last words came, surely, they would be that of Jesus. Every Lenten season, every Good Friday, messages focus on the last words He spoke as He hung on the cross. But we must not forget that He knew that his time was short and over and over again, Jesus spoke the words that He wanted us to know mattered. He spoke the words He wanted us to know were the guideposts for how we were to live when He no longer walked the earth. They pointed the way that He knew we would stumble in without his help. Those last words from the cross, those final words said so long ago are ones that we still savor, but in the years before that one we can glean so much wisdom and discernment for how, when, and what words we choose to say or write and whether they merit the value of being the last words we will ever be known for.

Perhaps if we immerse ourselves more in Him and his words the need to be right and win in every discussion and argument can be harnessed and brought into subjection. And if we can do that, then our words will speak life instead of death to the person hearing or reading them.

“The words you read in Scripture aren’t just encouraging or inspiring. Those descriptions of heaven aren’t just colorful phrases. Those teachings of Jesus aren’t just good ideas or principles. They are real life, both now and to come.”

Margaret Feinberg in The Sacred Echo

If we immerse ourselves in his words, they will begin to echo in our hearts and minds and then we may hope to have our words align more with his words, our heart beat with things that matter most to Him, and we will learn when we are to be silent, when we are to speak, and when we are to stand for the cause of his kingdom.

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Hazards of Success


Success is highly valued in the world today no matter what country, culture, faith, company, ministry, or person. Only the criteria for what would constitute success varies in the list noted. Even as believers we are tempted to chase that illusive benchmark. Some look at quantity as evidence while others insist that quality is the most important. In both cases, we get stuck because how much is enough and what does quality look like?

I wonder why success matters so much to us. If I were to survey a group of people, I would likely get a variety of answers. The real answer might not appear in the list, however, because success is often sought in order to confirm to ourselves that we are enough or we are valuable or we are important. If those roots are true, then success will likely be always just beyond our reach since we will never achieve enough to be certain of who we are, why we are, or what we have done.

Clearly, none of us set out to pursue failure or mediocrity, but the desire for success can be a fickle lover that tempts us to forget the source of our value and purpose if we ever knew it. It can also seduce us into believing that if we achieve anything that somehow it came from us rather than from a gracious God who blessed us and whatever efforts we used to reach some goal set before us. That is but one hazard of success.

Success can also lead us into greater temptation to compare ourselves with others. This is always full of snares. We either determine we are less than or not good enough compared to some other mortal who has as many flaws as we do or we fall prey to seeing ourselves as better than the model we chose to compare ourselves. It points to another example of a hazard.


When success is the primary goal, we make relational choices that are often based on whether or not these persons will add to or help us get to the target goal. In doing so, we may well ignore or overlook a host of warning signs that let us know the relationship may not be good for us. Without consciously acknowledging it, we use the other persons for our own benefit without much regard for him or her. We also expose the reality of our own selfish self-centeredness.

All of these hazards and more can cause us to place our trust in the wrong things and people. If we have read very much of nearly any part of the Bible, we see how common it is for us to fall prey to such hazards. In the Old Testament despite God’s favor and provision for his chosen people, time and again foreign cultures are hired to provide protection and God needs to allow His people to discover their faulty choices. In the New Testament we see the religious leaders of the day trusting in the law and phylacteries when the fulfillment of the law stands in front of them.

Too often we can be tempted to look to someone or something other than the Lord to lead us to success and save us from calamity. We are not so different than our Old Testament brothers and sisters who didn’t seek a personal relationship with God as central/primary and see Him as their leader and source and instead chose flawed earthly kings. They forgot (as we often do) that they were to be citizens of an eternal heavenly kingdom above an earthly one they were trusting.

I recently read a Bible commentator who put it this way:

“Cut off from God’s kingship, the people of God are left with only private religion and personal ambition. God is the king, however, and will not long tolerate seeing his people destroy themselves.”

When we get weighed down by the headlines around the world or our own personal lives and hope for a solution and peace, perhaps the psalmist still says it best:

“Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the Lord our God.

They collapse and fall, but we rise and stand upright.”

Psalm 20:7-8 (ESV)

And, by the way, only the Lord’s standard will determine the criteria for success in our lives!


The Whisperers

Blackberry Farm, Walland, TN Photo by Pam Ecrement

God gives some a special gift.

This gift allows the one possessing it to tame or train an animal using non-threatening body language and gentle words rather than reliance on physical contact.

Those who possess this gift are known as “whisperers”. Within them lays an intuition and heart that understands at an unusual level.

In 1998, a movie was released that depicts this perfectly. The movie was The Horse Whisperer. In it, a young adolescent girl and her horse are seriously injured in an accident. Both the girl and the horse have been deeply traumatized by their own injuries as well as by the death of the girl’s friend who had been also riding alongside them.

The girl’s physical injuries are significant, but the internal damage to her heart and spirit are even more severe. Her beloved horse has such grave injuries; the veterinarian believes the horse needs to be “put down”. Not only is the horse physically wounded, but also he is like his rider, wounded within his heart and personality.

It becomes clear to the mother of the girl that her healing is tied to that of the horse. This leads her to search for a horse whisperer that can bring healing to both the horse and her daughter.

Photo by Pam Ecrement

As the movie unfolds, the gifting of the horse whisperer is tested and fascinating to behold. Little by little he intuitively uses his gifts to begin to bring the horse to a greater level of wholeness, but the girl’s heart takes longer to heal. The trauma shared by the girl and the horse creates a fear that overwhelms each of them in their relationship with each other.

I never fail to be touched by the story as it unfolds on the screen.

When I was still working, I met with a woman whose life had been shattered by a car accident. One of the tools we used to help her face the accident was this movie, shown in very little segments. Not only had her body been traumatized, but also her heart and her spirit.

Many of us may have seen the movie or heard of other whisperers with various animals.

The truth is that many of us, humans, have been wounded and traumatized. What about us? Are we in need of such a whisperer as well to gently tend to our hearts and spirits?

I think so.

Jesus gives us a model of what that might look like. He saw the wound. He heard the words, but He heard beyond what He saw and heard. He looked deeply into the heart and spirit of the person and saw what others missed.

Did Jesus have discernment beyond any we have ever seen? Of course He did, but there was something else perhaps.

Jesus had a God-listening heart!

He was in communion with His Father at a level few of us can imagine. The Father who made each person and knew each one at a depth no one else could know surely spoke to His heart and revealed all to Him.

Because of that, His words were never trite, superficial, filled with religious prattle, or inconsequential.

The ordinary men He called to be His disciples appeared pale by comparison, especially at the outset. But over time after Jesus’s death, resurrection, and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, we begin to see a change in them. The indwelling of the Holy Spirit begins to train them to see beyond what is clearly in front of them, to have faith for what they could not believe on their own.

Maybe they were developing God-listening hearts. I think the Lord was fine-tuning their listening so they could be more like Him. Perhaps that was central to what His Kingdom was and is to look like while we occupy waiting for Him.

In this world of self-centeredness, frenetic activity, and quick fix solutions, what could serve as a more phenomenal witness of Christ within us than to be one with a God-listening heart?

I think a God-listening heart hears differently because it hears not only what is spoken by the person or seen in the person, but also what is left unsaid or only touched upon.

To respond to that which the God-listening heart reveals is perhaps the greatest love gift any of us can receive. And such love transforms and heals, comforts and grants courage in the face of trials.

Do I have a God-listening heart?

Do you?

Jesus is not physically here, but He is inside of us. I think He is calling us to have such a heart as His. Such a heart hears the checkout clerk at the grocery store differently, hears the seemingly casual conversation with the neighbor more astutely, and hears the heart of a friend when few words were spoken.

Are you a whisperer?

Let Jesus develop a God-listening heart within you and watch how He loves through you!

Blackberry Farm, Walland, TN – Photo by Pam Ecrement