A Tale of Three Trees

A year or so after we moved to Georgia, my husband Ray and I began a tradition we called “walking the property”. Let me dispel any notion you may have about us owning a vast estate. No, our property situated in a typical suburban housing development outside Atlanta measured approximately 1/3 of an acre.

Nonetheless, our small tract was special. Ray had a horticulture degree with an emphasis on woody ornamentals so he asked the builder to leave as many trees as he could when he cleared the property to make room for our home. In the nearly-five years we lived there together, Ray installed a number of unique plants whose names he patiently taught me – over and over again. Although I received a degree in Fashion Merchandising, I loved plants and being outside and spending time with Ray, thus I looked forward to our rambles and Ray’s lessons.

Warmth and copious hints of spring accompanied the evening of April 16, 1997. Ray dropped Jessie and Mary, our 7-and-10-year-old daughters, off at church for their mid-week children’s activities. When he returned, we started our evening stroll at the left front corner of our house, leisurely made our way through the woods, up the other side, and back to the driveway.

Ray stopped multiple times along our route. He pointed out plants of interest, mentioned specific landscaping plans, and commented on the health of things he’d planted in the much-amended Georgia clay. We paused by a grove of three bald cypress trees. All these years later, I don’t remember how tall the juvenile trees were, probably not much taller than Ray, but I distinctly remember his comments:

“These are some of my favorite trees. They’re interesting because they lose their needles.”

I didn’t know it would be the last time we’d walk the property. But God did.

Three nights later, my young daughters and I received life-shattering news: Ray, a mere 39 years old, had a fatal heart attack at work. He wouldn’t be coming home. Ever.

Over two decades have passed since that last stroll and the unthinkable loss. I focused on raising my daughters, finished a 30-year career at a large corporation, welcomed three grandchildren. Along the way, gardening became my therapy, a connection to Ray and a connection to a loving Father who’s reminded me of spiritual truths, softened my sorrows, and given me innumerable indications of His presence as I’ve worked in my yard.

And, amazingly, I got to go back to school to study horticulture! In my Woody ID class, I learned there are very few conifers[1] that lose their needles: dawn redwood, several larch species, and bald cypress. Confirmation of Ray’s long-ago statement.

IMG_0049The small specimens he planted now tower high above the back corner of my house. Each fall their needles create a brilliant color display before they let go, drift to the ground, and blanket the bed beneath their intertwined branches. I’ve thought so often about Ray’s comments and how special the trees are.

Five years ago, I noticed a number of seedlings peeking through the mantle of fallen needles. Upon closer inspection, I deduced they weren’t pesky pine seedlings that tend to pop up everywhere. They were baby bald cypresses!  I contacted a friend well-versed in all things coniferous. His comment upon hearing the news: “Those must be happy trees to be reproducing like that.”

I beamed at hearing this, adding to myself, “Well-loved, too.”

252I dug several of the seedlings and potted them in individual containers. In the seasons since, I watered, watched, and worried them along, hoping at least three of them – one for each grandchild – would make it. And make it they did. Last week, we moved them to Mary and son-in-law Justin’s house. With the help of a friend, the children planted the offspring of their grandfather’s favorite conifers.

The mind’s-eye images of that gorgeous fall afternoon – cloudless blue sky, warm-for-November breeze, dirty hands, and delighted laughter – have been underscored by a snippet of lyrics from the hymn, “Day by Day”, whose first stanza reads as follows:

Day by day and with each passing moment,
Strength I find to meet my trials here;
Trusting in my Father’s wise bestowment,
I’ve no cause for worry or for fear.
He whose heart is kind beyond all measure
Gives unto each day what He deems best –
Lovingly, its part of pain and pleasure,
Mingling toil with peace and rest.
[2]

Oh how I wish Ray was here to be Grandpa Kuipers to our grandchildren. I mourn the fact he isn’t. But at 8, 6 and 3, Joshua, Lyla, and Emma are old enough to grasp the concept of having a grandfather in heaven. I speak about him often, recounting his love of plants and people, and his faith.

When I told Joshua I was thinking about writing this post, he said, “Grammie, I read another story about three trees. One was used for Jesus’ manger, one for the boat He was in during the storm, and one for the cross.” The faith of a child, borne of a legacy of faith going back generations on all branches of my grandchildren’s family tree – faith that connects them to Ray and guarantees they’ll get to meet him in eternity (John 6:37-40).

Life can be so hard. After all, we’re not Home yet. But God graciously mixes in good gifts along the way to soften the blows and smooth the sharp edges – family and friends, plants and promises, conversations and conifers – all part of His beneficial plan for this grateful daughter (Jeremiah 29:11-13).

When I took my last stroll with Ray, I didn’t know the day would come when I’d be blessed to have three grandchildren, much less that we’d get to plant progeny of the very trees Ray singled out that night. But God did (Isaiah 46:9-10).256

 

[1] In basic terms, conifers are plants that bear their seeds in cones.

[2] “Day by Day”, lyrics by Carolina Sandell Berg; translated by Andrew L. Skoog.

What’s Driving You?

A sign announcing “49 days until Christmas” greeted me when I entered a local store two weeks ago. A ripple of disbelief momentarily distracted me from the every-day items on my list. Stay focused, don’t panic.

Since Thanksgiving is a mere 26 days before Christmas, pre-Black Friday offers accompany the number-of-shopping-days-left notifications, adding to the angst. No one wants to risk losing out on the best deal on whatever happens to be THE big gift item this season. Limited quantities! Get ‘em before they’re gone!!

Ah, the annual, stress-inducing countdown to Christmas. Even for believers. If we let it.

A while ago, my longtime spiritual mother, Susan Hunt, introduced me to the concept of Word-driven vs. task-driven ministry. The former is based on “unwavering clarity about the mission of glorifying God and obeying His Word.”[1] The latter describes a list-making, get-it-done, check-it-off approach. Too often it describes detail-oriented, perfectionist me as well.

As I’ve been thinking about my natural tendencies and all the added activities the holidays entail, it occurred to me that being Word-driven applies to all of life, because we’re called to glorify God no matter what we’re doing (1 Corinthians 10:31). How ironic that we allow tasks to overshadow the true meaning of this glorious season: the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.

My meandering thoughts also brought to mind “Happy nappy!”, a post I wrote two years ago and offer again here. I hope you’ll enjoy the reprise of this child-inspired reminder of unfathomable truth. And may we all endeavor to celebrate our Savior’s birth in Word-driven ways that glorify Him.

Happy nappy!

My 21-month-old granddaughter, Emma, loves to mother her baby dolls.  She strolls and feeds them, tucks them in and sings “rock-a-baby”.  Her tender ministrations warm my heart.

Earlier this week, I arrived at daughter Mary’s house for the first of my twice-weekly visits.  Six-year-old Joshua greeted me with exuberant orders to “look at the tree, Grammie!”  And what a tree it was! As my gaze followed Joshua’s outstretched arm, I beheld a magnificent, half-decorated Douglas fir, so wide it nearly filled the front room.  Emma’s happy babbles joined Joshua’s continuing dialog about the tree as I made my way through the house.  I tread gingerly, careful not to step on any of the favorite, kid-friendly (read: “unbreakable”) Christmas decorations, scattered about on the playroom floor. Among those recently freed from their storage boxes: the Peanuts gang – Charlie Brown carrying his spindly tree, Linus hugging his blanket, Sally holding her outrageous letter to Santa; a stuffed, chartreuse Grinch with his menacing scowl; and the Fisher-Price nativity, whose plastic figurines are perfectly proportioned for tiny hands

After the initial excited exclamations over the newly-appeared Christmas décor, Joshua, Emma and I settled into our morning routine, awaiting the appointed time to pick up 3-year-old Lyla from pre-school.  As I was preparing lunch, I overheard Emma saying, “Happy nappy”, a phrase we use instead of “sweet dreams” when tucking the children in for naptime.  Upon hearing her cheerful refrain, I surmised she was playing with the nativity.

IMG_4788 “Emma, are you telling Baby Jesus ‘happy nappy’?” My query was met with her inimitable, “Yes”.[2] Moments later, she gently transported the miniature baby-in-the-manger to the play kitchen where she prepared a snack for him. As I looked on, misty-eyed, God graciously used Emma’s simple gestures to remind me of profound truths:

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  He was in the beginning with God.  All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made.  In him was life, and the life was the light of men.  The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it . . . And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.” (John 1:1-5, 14)

“ . . . 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.” (Philippians 2:6-8)

“The Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.” (Isaiah 7:14)

“When the angels went away from them into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, ‘Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.’ And they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in a manger.” (Luke 2:15-16)

“For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.  Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” (Hebrews 4:15-16)

Jesus, the beloved Son, the second person of the Trinity, came to earth as a tiny, helpless baby who needed naps and food and the care of his parents.  Our finite minds can’t fully comprehend this astounding truth. Nonetheless, may we never forget that because of God’s great love for us, He sent us the most amazing, precious, priceless gift ever given, the gift we needed most: a Savior (John 3:16).

[1] Karen Hodge & Susan Hunt, “Life-giving Leadership” (Lawrenceville, GA: Committee on Discipleship Ministries, 2018), p. 170.

[2] “Yes” was one of Emma’s first words. Her charming, emphatic pronunciation made it one of her most endearing.

Heavenly Hugs

Several weeks ago, I received the following text from a dear sister in Christ, “Praying that the Lord will refresh you by His Word and Spirit today . . . some heavenly hugs to remind you of His presence . . . some quiet moments.”

Prompted by her knowledge that I was dealing with some weighty matters, the text itself felt like one of the hugs she wished for me. Oh the blessing of friends who take note of our concerns and reach out to encourage us!

I texted my thanks and mentioned I hoped to spend time in my garden, the backdrop to some of my sweetest moments with the Lord, later that day. Being outside often feels like a big Fatherly bear hug, one that melts my stress and recalibrates my perspective. But those of you who are longtime readers know I frequently find special treasures when I’m working in my yard. Gifts I imagine the Lord tucking tenderly here and there for me to discover and delight over.

Attired in my yard clothes – faded jeans, PFG shirt, well-worn work boots, and a wide-brimmed hat – I headed outside in search of solace. The reel mower whirred as I pushed it around and around what I refer to as my “keyhole of grass”. (I’m NOT a proponent of giant swaths of perfectly-manicured turf, but I’ll save that soapbox for another post.) The sun warmed my back and the tension in my shoulders subsided. Bees and butterflies visited one bright blossom after another. The fresh air worked its usual magic and nudged my cares aside, at least for a while.

I’d been outside for a couple of hours when I remembered my friend’s message, her prayer for heavenly hugs. Although I’d been reveling in the beauty of the afternoon, grateful to be playing in the dirt, I hadn’t come across anything specific that prompted an exclamation of, “That’s it! That’s today’s treasure, a heavenly hug.”

It’s ok, I thought. The whole afternoon’s been a blessing.

125My time outside was drawing to a close when I pulled up a spent summer annual, revealing a spindly bit of passionflower vine with a solitary gulf fritillary caterpillar munching intently on a bedraggled leaf. My heart soared! I’d been hugged.

I suppose most folks wouldn’t have paid much attention to the tiny orange visitor arrayed with black, predator-discouraging spikes. Yet as I gazed at him, I received a reminder of two important truths:

God’s provision. Passionflower (Passiflora incarnata) is the only food source for gulf fritillary caterpillars. For several years I intentionally planted the vine by my mailbox, enjoying wave after wave of caterpillars until all the leaves were consumed and only bare stems remained. My summer reveries came to an end though when I realized neighbors’ mosquito treatments killed the caterpillars. I pulled up the vine, unwilling to create a death trap for my annual visitors. Sprigs of the vine continue to emerge from roots left in the ground. I sadly and dutifully pull them up too. The one the caterpillar was feeding on escaped my notice, hidden under another plant. But an egg-laying butterfly found it amidst all the other plants on my property. Isn’t that amazing?! And if God provides for butterflies and caterpillars and birds and lilies, we can be sure He’ll provide for His beloved children (Matthew 6:25-33).

Perseverance. By the time I discovered the miniature passionflower vine with its voracious visitor, we’d endured several weeks of drought accompanied by way-above-average temperatures. Although the plant’s leaves bore faded splotches, it had survived the unfavorable conditions and was available to host the egg that became the caterpillar. Endurance is an essential aspect of our walk with the Lord. Hardships, challenges, droughts of various kinds – we’re told to expect them. But great blessings, from godly character to eternal life, come with perseverance (Romans 5:3-5; James 1:12). The indwelling Spirit enables us to persevere until the day of Jesus’ return when God will complete the good work He began in us (Philippians 1:6).

At times we need reminders, don’t we? The world can be so loud and demanding, muffling God’s still, quiet voice. But He’s always with us, just as He promised, and sometimes He sends perfectly-packaged heavenly hugs to reassure us. Our Father knows each of us by name. He never loses sight of us. And He loves us so much more than we can fathom.

So I ask you not to lose heart over what I am suffering for you, which is your glory. For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being,  so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith—that you, being rooted and grounded in love,  may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth,  and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen. (Ephesians 3:13-20)

 

Me, funny?

Silly, witty, comical – words rarely, if ever, used to describe me. No, I inherited my dad’s serious demeanor. Smiles and chuckles constitute the extent of my joviality – most of the time. But every so often, something lands on the bullseye of my funny bone, provoking breath-stealing laughter accompanied by tears of merriment.

Such was the case one recent evening when my 8-year-old grandson Joshua and I ate dinner at my parents’ house. We’d almost finished our meal when the phone rang. Dad answered.  Despite his solemn character, he’s been known to have some fun with telemarketers. He once told a carpet cleaning rep we had no use for his company’s services because we lived in a shack with dirt floors.

“Recording. Someone calling about cleaning ducts.” he reported as he made his way back to the table.

Alas, no chance for a funny exchange. But wait!

187Just as I took a drink of water, I noticed Joshua’s confused look. I knew in an instant what was coming next and oh how I regretted taking that extra-large gulp.

Wide-eyed, Joshua asked, “Duck cleaning?”

Bullseye! No way could I swallow the water without it being sucked into my lungs as I began to cackle. Out it came in an explosive burst, inundating my plate, spilling over the edge of the table and onto my lap. In between guffaws and gasps for air, I managed to squeak out a few apologies.

It took several minutes for my laughter to subside enough to assure my worried parents I would survive and to explain to Joshua what Papop actually said. In spite of my uncharacteristic outburst of glee, Joshua  willingly went home with me to spend the night as planned.

Serious, contemplative, not very good at telling jokes – now there are some descriptors more befitting my persona. In fact, there are times when I try to be funny and people still take me seriously, a trait that’s come in handy over the years on April 1st, but proves frustrating otherwise. And then there’s a longtime pal who dubbed me “least spontaneous” among her friends.

Taken together, these labels conspire to make me feel un-fun, boring, less-than. But a recent devotional reading reminded me when God knits us together (Psalm 139:13), He creates a unique package – physical appearance, gifts and graces, and temperament. Thus God determined the just-so blend of Dad’s resting-face scowl and Mom’s irrepressible smile along with myriad other physical and emotional components resulting in me. No mistakes, no room to covet aspects of others’ personalities or giftedness (1Corinthians 12:12-26).

And so it is for each of us. Not in a “this is me, take it or leave it” way, since we have the assurance our temperaments are being sanctified as we’re transformed more and more into the likeness of Christ (Romans 8:29), but in a way that’s most glorifying to God.

I may not accept a last-minute invitation or be able to remember a punchline, but if you need a safe place for a quiet conversation over a cup of tea, I’m your person. Underneath this sometimes stoic exterior resides a cheerful and welcoming heart, one that even appreciates moments of unbridled, soul-lifting laughter.

The Anchor Holds

I suppose I should have expected his arrival. But, distracted by other things, I didn’t notice his approach until it was too late to bolt the door and deny him entry. By the time I perceived his presence, he’d unpacked his bags and flung a cloak of melancholy over my heart.

And just who was this uninvited guest? Loneliness.

After spending a week at the beach with my family, my house, usually a welcome oasis of tranquility, felt silent and empty instead. Nonetheless, being home alone wasn’t the calling card I referred to above. I could have invited a grandchild over or texted one of my daughters. No, the profound loneliness sprang from knowing I couldn’t be with the one person I longed for most at that moment, my late husband Ray.

The Crucible of Life

As is often the case when I write or teach about scriptural principles and God’s promises, real life intervenes, compelling me to speak the truth I profess to myself, to apply the healing balm of assurance to my own woundedness.  Such was the case last Saturday morning as I sat at my kitchen table, with whispers of fall meandering through windows open to the breeze after summer finally loosened its stranglehold on metro Atlanta.

You see, a few days before I returned home, my podcast, “Loving Christ in the Midst of Loss”, aired on CDM’s enCourage[1] website and I posted a companion article, “Stewarding our Stories”, on my blog. I used both platforms to proclaim God’s faithfulness across the 22 years since Ray died suddenly at age 39 and accompanied my proclamation with the assurance we can trust God as He sovereignly writes even the most difficult chapters of our stories.

So the appearance of my uninvited guest should have come as no surprise. In addition, my defenses were down, weakened by responsibilities and issues set aside while I was on vacation, only to be prayerfully resumed and mulled over when I returned. Thus, I didn’t shoo my squatter away as quickly as I might have under different circumstances.

Rather, I embraced him. My mind wandered, taking my heart with it. I wished Ray was sitting at his place at the table, holding my hand, listening as I poured out my concerns, a scenario played out numerous times during our marriage. I thought about how pleasant it would be to work in the yard together on that first fall-like day. And I remembered a long-ago night when I crawled into bed tearful and exhausted, bemoaning how little time Ray and I had to do things together. Our daughters were tiny, one an infant, the other a toddler. The days were long and my to-dos unending. In his attempt to comfort me, Ray uttered words that have become increasingly poignant over the years, “They’ll grow up so fast and then we’ll have lots of time together.”

Oh, Ray. You were gone long before our nest emptied. The lots of time you promised didn’t come to be.

Grieving

Over two decades of widowhood have tempered the searing pain of loss. Body-racking sobs are rare, replaced by silent tears, the occasional overflow of a heart yearning for its missing piece. There’s a sigh deep in my soul, born of sorrow mingled with longing and acceptance.

Even though those who belong to God don’t grieve as those who have no hope (1 Thessalonians 4:13-14), we still grieve, because death wasn’t part of God’s good plan. It’s part of the curse, a severe consequence of Adam and Eve’s disobedience (Genesis 2:16-17; Genesis 3:19b). Losing loved ones is painful and mourning our separation is a process, one that will continue until we’re reunited, as grief ebbs and flows. May we remember as much and be compassionate toward ourselves and others when the thorns of grief prick anew.

Never Forsaken

'Tis so SweetBut there is hope, dear reader, now and eternally. Having found comfort in the promises of the One who’s vowed to never leave or forsake us (Deuteronomy 31:8), I dispatched my erstwhile visitor. Furthermore, I can reaffirm all I said in the podcast and wrote in my last post. The bottom is good.[2] The anchor holds (Hebrews 6:19). Victory is certain (1 Corinthians 15:54-56).

Faith refined by trials is more precious than gold (1 Peter 1:6-7). And life-tested truth allows me to say with hymn writer Louisa M. R. Stead,

“’Tis so sweet to trust in Jesus,
Just to take Him at His word,
Just to rest upon His promise,
Just to know ‘Thus saith the Lord.’
Jesus, Jesus, how I trust Him! How I’ve proved Him o’er and o’er!
Jesus, Jesus, precious Jesus! O for grace to trust Him more!”[3]

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more.  And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.  And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” (Revelation 21:1-4, emphasis added.)

 

[1] CDM – Christian Discipleship Ministries is a ministry of the Presbyterian Church in America. The enCourage website features blog posts and podcasts aimed at “connecting the hearts of women to the hope of the Gospel.”

[2] Hopeful’s comment to Pilgrim in John Bunyan’s “Pilgrim’s Progress”, as they prepare to cross the river to get to their final destination, the Celestial City.

[3] ‘Tis So sweet to Trust in Jesus, text Louisa M.R. Stead, music, William J. Kirkpatrick.

Stewarding our Stories (aka, “Podcast, the Backstory”)

Who am I to tell my story on a podcast? I haven’t written a book, though I hope to do so. I don’t lead a well-known ministry or have a bunch of followers on any form of social media.

Such were my thoughts when Karen Hodge, Women’s Ministry Coordinator for the PCA[1], first mentioned the possibility. I was grateful for the opportunity to share blog posts on the enCourage website from time to time. But record an episode for the weekly podcast? Thanks, but I preferred to leave that to the more well-known women in our denomination.

A year after that brief conversation, the offer resurfaced. In the intervening months, I had a change of heart.  What brought about the change? I still hadn’t published a book or become a household name in PCA circles. No, but I’d become acquainted with the idea of stewarding our stories, enlightened to the fact that my story isn’t ultimately about me. It’s all about God and His amazing grace extended to those He loves, a story begun before the foundation of the world and lasting into eternity (Ephesians 1:3-14).

This is the time and place God has appointed for me to live out my earthly chapter of that grand narrative (Acts 17:26). I began my blog, Back 2 the Garden, to glorify Him and encourage others by proclaiming His faithfulness, compassion, and lovingkindness. Now I was being given an opportunity to put an audible voice to those words.

It was still with some trepidation, but I agreed to proceed and submitted an outline of my story. Karen responded with a list of appropriate questions. I prepared and prayed. Yet when the day arrived to record the podcast I kept checking the clock, as the knot in my stomach tightened and those same old “who am I?” misgivings cluttered my thoughts.

Once we began our conversation, the knot relaxed and I focused on my message. Half an hour later we were done. Phew! Mission accomplished.

But alas, there appeared to be some technical issues. Hopefully, the glitches could be resolved through the magic of editing. Nonetheless, doubt regarding the viability of the recording watered the seed of “not good enough”, which germinated into a prayer of, “If it isn’t good enough, Lord, please help the recording not to be fixable.”

Weeks passed before I got to listen to the tape. My part was barely audible, but what I said made sense and included most of what I hoped to convey. My relief was short-lived, supplanted the next day by news the disparity in volume between my part and Karen’s couldn’t be resolved.  However, the message included an invitation to try again.

It took 24 hours for me to accept that invitation, a full day to quell the doubts running rampant. “See! It’s not meant to be. Nobody needs to hear your story.”

On the day appointed to re-record the interview, a technology-adept friend provided special headphones with a built-in microphone to improve the sound quality on my end. Numerous friends were praying. I was ready. And then, one question into the interview, my internet went down. And came back. And went down again. After three attempts to reply to that first question, Karen offered one last time slot the following week, saying mine was the only segment of the new season left to record and she truly wanted to include it. I agreed, buoyed by her sincere desire to give me every possible chance to tell my story.

I hadn’t even had time to unplug my computer when Karen’s assistant, also a longtime friend, texted, “This is a spiritual battle.”

Yep. This brazen interference made it abundantly obvious who didn’t want me to praise God in a broader-than-usual forum. And that realization transformed my timidity into firm resolve. I wouldn’t be silenced by the father of lies (John 8:44).

An hour before the last-chance interview was to begin, my internet went down. Noooo! I packed up my technology – computer, power cord, super headphones – and mostly obeyed the speed limit as I drove to my daughter’s house.  I should have planned to be there all along since my son-in-law proudly told me not two days before that their internet speed had been upgraded to a level comparable to NASA’s. The house was uncharacteristically quiet with the children at school, empty except for June, the family dog. I tucked her into the garage with her water dish and some extra kibble. No need to have her BIG voice providing background music for the interview. I ensconced myself in Mary and Justin’s walk-in closet – the most soundproof place in the house – in case their overly-zealous leaf-blowing neighbor decided to crank up his equipment.

IMG_1739I took several deep breaths to settle my nerves. There in my safe cocoon, surrounded by clothes and innumerable prayers, I proceeded to have a pleasant chat with Karen. Within 24 hours I received the all-clear – the recording was usable. When I listened to it a few days later, I sounded more conversational, less stressed than the first time. Though some of the details varied, the message was the same: God is faithful. We can trust Him, even in our most difficult circumstances when we don’t understand. He’ll never leave us or forsake us. My story to steward, my testimony to bear.

You have a story too, dear reader. Satan attempts to silence us with lies and doubts, but Jesus made it clear we’re not to hide our light under a basket (Matthew 5:14-16). Furthermore, scripture tells us to be ready to give an answer for the hope that lies within us (1 Peter 3:15). Our hope rests on the certain promises of God and provides a sure and steadfast anchor for our souls (Hebrews 6:19).

Just like every blog post I write, I pray the Lord will use the podcast for His glory, to send hope and encouragement to those who hear it.

Here’s the link if you’d like to listen to my conversation with Karen, “Loving Christ in the Midst of Loss”:https://encourage.pcacdm.org/?p=2731

[1] Presbyterian Church in America

One-on-one

Most weeks I spend Mondays and Wednesdays with my grandchildren so my daughter can focus on her paid employment. We refer to those days as “Grammie days” and, best I can tell, the children look forward to them as much as I do. Occasionally a holiday falls on a Monday and a whole week passes before I return. Even though I’m tired at the end of Grammie days, I miss the kiddos when my weekly visits are reduced by one.

The new school year brought with it a slightly modified schedule. Every third week, I’ll be helping out on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. All the children go to school on Tuesdays, but I pick 3-year-old Emma up from pre-school at 1 pm and we get to have several hours of one-on-one time before Mary arrives home with 8-year-old Joshua, and 5-year-old Lyla in tow.

2053Those hours allow for some sweet, uninterrupted chats with Miss Emma, something that ranges from difficult to impossible when all of us are there. Never fear, we’re working on the basic building block of conversation etiquette – having one person talk while everyone else listens. However, more often than not, the listeners grow impatient for their turn and before I know it I’m trying to keep track of multiple storylines. I’m only able to catch a word or two from their various tales, resulting in frustration for all of us, frequently accompanied by shouts of “Hey, I wanted to tell Grammie!”

Time to linger over a meal or cup of tea with a friend or relative is such a rare and precious commodity given our fast-paced lives and overflowing to-do lists. I well remember the demands of young adulthood, working for a large corporation and raising my daughters. Thus when those now-adult daughters are intentional about spending focused time with me, I cherish the gift of togetherness.

Just as I value one-on-one time with my children and grandchildren, my heavenly Father wants to spend time with me. My finite human mind can’t fully grasp the enormity of that truth, especially when I contemplate what it cost Him (John 3:16).

The fulfillment of God’s covenant promise – I will be your God, you will be my people and I will dwell among you – would be impossible without us being holy, perfect, sinless for God cannot abide any unclean thing in His presence. The sacrifice of the spotless Lamb made it possible for us to approach the throne of grace, robed in righteousness, fully acceptable and pleasing to God (1 Peter 1:14-21).

It grieves me to think how often I overlook this great privilege. Like the occasional cacophony of my grandchildren around the lunch table, demands and responsibilities splinter my days. Some are so trivial, like the dinging of my phone summoning me to check a text or e-mail or Facebook post. My thoughts scatter as I repeatedly respond to this palm-sized taskmaster. Meanwhile, the Maker and Sustainer of all things beckons me to come to Him for soul rest (Matthew 11:28-30) and everlasting sustenance (John 6:35; John 7:37-38). Infinite and omnipresent, He’s capable of attending to each and every one of His children (Proverbs 15:3). We don’t have to compete for His attention or wait for our turn to speak (Psalm 34:15; Psalm 139:1-12).

Now as they went on their way, Jesus entered a village. And a woman named Martha welcomed him into her house. And she had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to his teaching. But Martha was distracted with much serving. And she went up to him and said, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me.” But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her.” (Luke 10:38-42)

O, Lord, I know how much I cherish time spent with my beloved family, especially uninterrupted, one-on-one time. I am humbled and amazed to think that You, Lord of lords and King of kings, want to spend time with me (Psalm 8:3-4). Please help me not to take the gift of your presence for granted. By the power of your Spirit, enable me to set aside mundane distractions to partake of the one thing I truly need, time to sit at your feet and learn of You.

Respite

I’m not sure if it’s been hotter than usual or if I suppress memories from one year to the next of how endless the summer heat feels by the time late August rolls around in Hotlanta. Regardless, we experienced a string of seemingly-interminable days where high temperatures and accompanying humidity combined to produce daytime heat indexes hovering around 100 degrees – too uncomfortable for even garden-loving me to venture outside. But last week, a rainy Monday ushered in a cooler-than-usual series of days. I turned off the air conditioner and, wait for it, opened several windows. What a delight to catch a whiff of rain-scented air, to listen to the soothing patter of liquid ballerinas pirouetting on breeze-nudged leaves.

The days that followed were adorned with clear-blue skies and cool, crisp mornings, allowing for more open windows. I reveled in hearing humming cicadas and chirping birds, their distinct sounds no longer muffled by panes of glass. Dry leaves drifted to the ground, laying the foundation of a crunchy carpet for critters to rustle through as they began to lay up their winter provisions. Hickory nuts and acorns plummeted from lofty perches, hitting my deck with loud pops akin to firecrackers’, before skittering to a stop.

As my grandmother used to say, “It’s a great big, beautiful world!”

I’ve lived here nearly 30 years – plenty long enough to know summer is far from over. Nonetheless, the series of fall-like days provided both a respite from the intolerable heat and a promise of things to come. Whispers of autumn to help us hold on until longer-lasting relief arrives.

Sometimes life events conspire to create conditions as oppressive and unbearable as summer in the South. One hard thing after another leaves us wondering if the cooling rains will ever return to quench our thirsty, drought-weary souls. A longtime friend has experienced just such conditions most of this year. My heart aches for her, my prayers are filled with petitions for relief. Then at last, as I was rejoicing in my week of open windows, came the news that she’d had several good days filled with enjoyable family time, a refreshing respite for her soul. Thank You, Lord!

Just as I know I’ll have to turn the air conditioner back on and close my windows, shutting out the sounds and aromas of my garden, my friend knows she has more difficult days ahead. But, being sisters in Christ, we remind each other of Truth: God has promised to never leave us or forsake us. He’s working all things together for good, including the most challenging ones. Jesus beckons us to come to Him for the kind of rest that will last forever (Deuteronomy 31:6; Romans 8:28; Matthew 11:28-30).

Our best days offer mere glimpses of the unimaginable glory that awaits. Nevertheless, we savor the sample of what’s to come. I didn’t realize how much I missed being outside, how much I needed some garden therapy, until I was finally able to walk the property again. I will let photos I took on those strolls do the speaking for the rest of this post. My prayer is that you will feel some of the joy and awe I experience when I behold the beauty of Creation in the presence of the Creator, assured that the One who cares for the birds and lilies sees even me (Matthew 6:25-34).

Always a Mother

img_1628Those who know me well know I cry easily – tears of joy or sorrow, tears when beholding exceptional beauty or kindness, tears of frustration and disappointment. But sometimes, even I am surprised by what provokes the tears. This week it was a picture my daughter Mary posted – of her feet. Yep, you read that correctly. You see, her feet were clad in colorful running shoes, posed in a position unattainable since she fractured her ankle while participating in a half-marathon last November. Until now.

Cross country was Mary’s sport-of-choice in high school and she rededicated herself to distance running several years ago. This isn’t the first time a foot or ankle injury has sidelined her. Consequently, she was smart about rehabbing her ankle, not doing too much too soon. Being awarded a spot to run in this year’s Chicago Marathon, one of the most coveted invitations in the running world, provided further motivation to recover well.

Another Setback

A local municipality sponsors a series of 5k races each year, one race per month fromIMG_3857 May to October. After several years of participation, the Kennesaw Grand Prix Series is now a family tradition. I take my place on the sidewalk to cheer my runners[1] on from the final curve, down the straight-away, and across the finish line. I relish those Saturday mornings.

Mary ran the May race, her first since the fracture, continued training strategically and participated in the 50th-anniversary edition of the Peachtree Road Race, the world’s largest 10k, on July 4th. The July 5k took place the following week. I cheered myself almost-hoarse as I watched 5-year-old granddaughter, Lyla, complete the 1-mile race. Moments later, my exuberance over her accomplishment gave way to disappointment brought about by Mary’s last-minute decision not to run. Pain in her right hip prevented her from trotting more than a few steps without wincing. And it hasn’t felt right since.

My heart hurts for my beloved daughter. Mary should be well into her training regimen for the Chicago Marathon, racking up 10-15 miles at a time, yet even 1-mile outings are proving difficult. But that’s not all. She’s endured some emotional injuries as well. Add those to her physical limitations and you’ve got the makings of a spiritual battle. One she has to wage without the benefit of her usual heart-thumping, mind-clearing time with the Lord. Solitary, stress-reducing time she’s come to count on to sustain her as a dedicated wife and mother of three, partially-homeschooled little ones, plus the demands of her not-so-part-time paid employment.

Mama Bear Lives

“Once a mother, always a mother.”

“When you hurt, I hurt.”

Lines I’ve heard my mom utter countless times throughout my life. With every passing year, I become more convinced of the veracity of her statements, no matter how old our children are. In fact, at age 87 and weighing in at about the same number, Mom is still my staunchest supporter and most fervent prayer warrior.

When my daughters were little, I wanted to protect them from hurts and disappointments, to keep them safe. That hasn’t changed now that they’re all grown up. The stakes are often higher, the hurts deeper in adulthood. I continue to pray for their safety and well-being.

A Higher Purpose

If I had my way, I wouldn’t let any harm come to my children or grandchildren, my friends or family members, EVER. But I don’t have my way. And though it may sound like I’m contradicting myself, I’m thankful I don’t. Because I have no doubt I’ve come to know God more intimately through the hard times than I ever would had I gone through life without pain or problems. My faith is stronger because of adversity, from being stretched and tested, just like our physical muscles grow strong from being used and bearing increasingly-heavy loads (James 1:2-4).

Why would I want any less for my loved ones? But I’m not wise enough to comprehend which trials will produce endurance or solidify their relationship with their Savior or conform them more to His image. When I contemplate Mary’s situation, I’m tempted to ask, “Why this, Lord? Why take running away from her? Why now when she received an invitation to run in Chicago?” I must trust God to have a good plan for her, remembering that nothing is ever lost or wasted as God weaves our stories into His grand, over-arching story of redemption (Jeremiah 29:11). I cling to the promise that He works all things together for good for those who love Him, confident Mary belongs to Him (Romans 8:28).

Just as the fractured ankle wasn’t Mary’s first run-inhibiting injury, the spiritual battle isn’t a first either. She’s suffered losses, challenges and disappointments aplenty in her 30-some years. And just as she knew how to rehab her ankle, Mary has a time-proven plan to strengthen her spirit – prayer, reading God’s word, seeking godly counsel (Romans 12:12; Psalm 119:105; Proverbs 11:14).

IMG_7889I watch and pray, embracing a friend’s assurance offered up when Mary was only a few months old: “God loves her even more than you do.”

Hold onto your faith, dear Mary. And remember, Mama Bear is cheering you on.

Have you not known? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable. He gives power to the faint, and to him who has no might he increases strength. Even youths shall faint and be weary, and young men shall fall exhausted;  but they who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength;  they shall mount up with wings like eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint (Isaiah 40:28-31).

[1] “My runners” include daughters, Mary and Jessie, granddaughters, Lyla and Emma, and assorted friends, depending on the race.

Taming the Tongue

Within the past week, I’ve been on the receiving end of several disconcerting remarks. One was an expletive hurled by a stranger, who’d been momentarily inconvenienced by the position of my car as I exited a friend’s neighborhood. I allowed the vitriol to roll off, knowing the problem belonged entirely to the other person, at least since he hadn’t used a gun to express his disdain. In the safe solitude of my car, I shook my head and said aloud, “Wow, so much anger in the world! I can’t wait for You to come back, Lord!”

So much antagonism. Incivility. Yelling. As if force somehow validates your point. I rarely watch the news anymore because it makes it more difficult to adhere to the Apostle Paul’s admonition: “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.” (Philippians 4:8) Very little in the nightly recounting of events falls into any of those categories.

But two of the recent hurtful comments were merely insensitive, tossed out carelessly, without thought as to their potential impact. Maybe they were meant in jest, but, malicious or not, they landed right on top of some already-felt insecurities. Consequently, those two statements stuck. I had a hard time dislodging them because they fit my internal monologue too well.

Undoubtedly, there are times when I’m the one guilty of life-taking language, sometimes unintentional, sometimes uttered in a moment of irritation with intent to quiet the source of my aggravation. I’m guessing those of you reading this have been both giver and receiver of verbal wounds as well.

IMG_1597My ruminations on the power of our words brought to mind the scene in “Bambi”[1] where Thumper comments on newborn Bambi’s wobbly attempts to walk. The bunny’s mother intervenes with a firm reminder:

“Thumper.”

“Yes, Mama?”

“What did your father tell you this morning?”

“If you can’t say something nice, don’t say nothin’ at all.”

Good, concise advice for everyone, young or old.

Scripture has much to say regarding our speech. Consider for example:

  • A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger. The tongue of the wise commends knowledge, but the mouths of fools pour out folly. (Proverbs 15:1-2)
  • The heart of the righteous ponders how to answer, but the mouth of the wicked pours out evil things. (Proverbs 15:28)
  • The good person out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure produces evil, for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks. (Luke 6:45)
  • Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. (Ephesians 4:29-31)
  • But now you must put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk from your mouth. Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator. (Colossians 3:8-10)
  • Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God. (James 1:19-20)
  • And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell. For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so. Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and salt water? Can a fig tree, my brothers, bear olives, or a grapevine produce figs? Neither can a salt pond yield fresh water. (James 3:6-12)

That last passage is particularly sobering, isn’t it? Taming our tongue is impossible for us, but nothing is impossible for God (Mark 10:27). We’ll continue to struggle with fleshly tendencies, including careless words and, at times, unwholesome speech, until we’re called Home (Romans 7:18). Nonetheless, the Spirit is sanctifying us, conforming us more and more to the likeness of the Son (Romans 8:29).

We are offspring of the King, called to be life-givers[2] in word and deed, children of light in a dark world (Ephesians 5:8-10; Philippians 2:14-16). As we practice being slow to speak, may we pause and ask ourselves if what we’re about to say is kind, true and necessary. Better yet, would we want someone to say it to or about us? After all, the Golden Rule is a simple, yet profound summation of the Law and the Prophets (Matthew 7:12), the perfect bridle to tame our wayward tongues.

 

[1] Walt Disney Studios’ animated classic debuted in 1942.

[2] For more on life-giving/life-taking behaviors, please click on the “Give Life” tab on the top banner or check out “Bucket-fillers” in the November 2018 archives.