A little green book with ragged edges entitled Stepping Heavenward
has a prominent place on my bookshelf. The author is Elizabeth Prentiss. The book was published in 1869 and sold more than 200,000 copies in America.
But its age and its popularity are not the reasons it is special to me. On the inside front cover a young boy wrote his name when he was twelve years old. That signature was written so long ago it has almost faded away. That boy was my father.
It reads, "Wadsworth B. Neeley - 1904- Heath, S.C." It had been a treasured possession of his mother who had died two years before. It is written in journal style about a teenage girl in a loving Christian family. She expressed her hopes and her patience through ups and downs of typical sibling rivalry. Their love for their Lord and Savior kept them close to each other.
My father saw a similar growth in his family. Life was hard without their beloved mother who had been so caring and gentle. So when she died, my father, who was the oldest, gave stability to his younger brother and two sisters. His big heart made room for the children and they were in a loving relationship until the day he died. Their father was an esteemed minister of the Gospel.
It is bedrock truth that the love of God is meant to hold us steady in this life, no matter what. The great author Robert Browning (1812-1889) put it this way, "Take away love and our earth is a tomb."
Another famous author, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, for whom my father was named, spoke these words about love: "There is nothing holier in this life of ours than the first consciousness of love - the first fluttering of its silken wings - the first rising sound and breath of that wind which is so soon to sweep through the soul to purify."
That superb description can only be improved upon in the Word of God. The oft-recited John 3:16 says it this way: "For God loved the world so much that He gave His only Son that whoever believes in Him would not perish but have everlasting life."
Jesus had a calm response to a lawyer's testy desire to know which was the most important commandment: He said, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and great commandment" (Matt.22:37).
In other words, we must have love as the basis of all relationships in order to fulfill the Ten Commandments of Exodus 20. And certainly that love of God overflows to others after we accept Jesus as our Lord and Savior.
Expressing this love was the purpose Elizabeth Prentiss had in writing her book, Stepping Heavenward. That bestseller was followed with several other books. She was described as a "very bright-eyed, little woman, with a keen sense of humor, who cared more to shine in her own happy household than in a wide circle of society."
Portions of her writing were in rhyme and one of her poems was set to music
. She drew on Scripture as the basis. These are the words of Paul to the believers in Philippi: "And this I pray, that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight "(Phil. 1:9). The words bring back sweet memories to me because my family sang them in church:
"More love to thee O Christ, more love to Thee.
Hear now the prayer I make, on bended knee.
This is my earnest plea, more love O Christ to Thee.
More love to Thee. More love to Thee."
Elizabeth Prentiss showed that poem and the other two verses to no one when it was finished, for fear that it was too simple and not important. But her husband, Rev. George Prentiss, discovered the poem years later and arranged for it to be printed in leaflet form.
After distribution at their Presbyterian church where he was pastor, it was set to music by the well-known composer, William H. Doane. He included it in his hymnal of 1870, "Songs of Devotion." It continues to be printed in hymnals of many denominations. Within the body of Christ, "we love Him because He first loved us" (1 John 4:19).
Rev. Prentiss spoke lovingly of his wife at her funeral in their church. "The aim of her writings, whether designed for young or old, was to incite to patience, fidelity, hope, and all goodness by showing how trust in God and loving obedience to His blessings, would brighten the darkest paths and make a heaven upon earth." Her death had come suddenly after a brief illness in Dorset, Vermont on August 13,1878.
I treasure my grandmother Maggie's little green book. It assures me that her intention was to raise her family with Godly love and devotion. Even though she died at a young age, the seeds she had sown within the family helped them all to step heavenward. Within the last years they have all done that.
What do we know about heaven? It is real! And it is exciting to know that Jesus has gone to prepare that Home for those who believe.
Our Father, who art in heaven, it is most wonderful to know that You are also here. As You pour love out upon all creation, let us respond with that invitation for Jesus to be Lord and Savior of our lives. May we express that love for You in worship and in the loving deeds You direct us to do. As we give a pat on the shoulder, a kind smile, a caring word, it may be the turning point in some lonely life. Thank you for giving us opportunities each day to express more love to Thee and may it pour out to others. We pray in Jesus' mighty name, Amen.
Lucy Neeley Adams has always loved music. She began telling the story of hymns on Christian radio WWGM in Nashville, TN, in the '80s. She then wrote a newspaper column titled "Song Stories" for five years. During that time Lucy's book, 52 Hymn Story Devotions, was published by Abingdon Press in Nashville. Each of the 52 stories contained in the book is written in a devotional format, with the words of the hymn concluding each devotion. Lucy, dubbed "The hymn lady," can be heard on the first Thursday of each month when she discusses hymn stories during a telephone interview with Michelle Mendoza of "Living Christian." The program is aired on station KCIS in Seattle, WA. Lucy lives at Lake Junaluska, NC, with her minister husband, Woody. They have four children and fourteen grandchildren. She may be reached for comment at email@example.com. Visit her at 52hymns.com.