Love Never Ends

February 14th. Valentine’s Day. One of several days throughout the year when I have to take myself in hand and preach truth to myself even more so than usual. Father’s Day, my late husband’s birthday, our would-be wedding anniversary, the day God called Ray Home. Difficult days when I’m tempted to question God’s goodness; to wonder why He wrote my beloved spouse’s too-soon-for-me departure into our story.

The sunshine streaming through my windows this morning provided a stark contrast to my mood. No card, no flowers, no warm embrace from my forever love. Everything in me wanted to ignore the holiday. Well, almost everything. Whispers of truth made their way through the silent, solitary morning moments, “You’re not alone. Reach out.”

I sent a few texts, their content more cheerful than my prevailing state of mind. Soon my phone began to ping notifying me of incoming replies, most bedecked with emoji hearts and hugs:

“Happy Valentine’s Day to you, my friend!”

“Happy Valentine’s Day to you as well! I am thankful today for friends and family! Love to you today!”

“’The Lord has appeared of old unto me, saying, ‘Yea, I have loved you with an everlasting love; therefore with lovingkindness have I drawn you.’ Jeremiah 31:3 . . . Praying this will minister to you.”

Gratitude, love, the Word of the Lord – potent antidotes for sorrow, doubt, and self-pity. They provided the traction I needed to extricate myself from the emotional quagmire I was languishing in. Back on solid footing, I redirected my thoughts.

img_2626-1I’m thankful for the time Ray and I spent together. I’d rather have been married to him for 13 years than not at all. The last card he gave me was a Valentine card. Unlike other memorabilia tucked away in various boxes and file folders, it resides in a special spot on my bookshelf. Lost in my reverie, I retrieved it from its slot and reverently removed it from its well-worn envelope. After savoring the sentiments within, I placed it on the edge of my dining room table which also serves as my desk. There, alongside other tangible reminders of loved ones, it radiated a message of glowing encouragement.

When I first read the words some 23 years ago I asked Ray if he truly felt that way about me. I didn’t see much of myself in the card’s lofty ideals which reference the Proverbs 31 woman. He didn’t hesitate before confirming the message rang true. What a gift to be able to see someone’s potential in the Lord, wherever they may be in the life-long process of sanctification, and then graciously point it out to them.

God used Ray’s unconditional love to show His love for me throughout our marriage. What a blessing to read the words contained in that final card all these years later and hear Ray’s resounding affirmation.  Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things (1 Corinthians 13:7).

With my thoughts on a decidedly-positive trajectory, I pondered some things our pastor pointed out during last night’s study of the Westminster Confession of Faith: God is pleased to reveal Himself to us in His Word. He desires intimacy with His people. The Bible is a living document, God’s direct link with us. When we read our Bibles we should imagine God smiling at us because He loves us.

Isn’t that amazing?!!

And now here I sit, joyfully overwhelmed by God’s great love, with so many pertinent passages running through my mind, I don’t know how to end this post. Likewise, I don’t know how you’re feeling on this Valentine’s Day, dear reader. Maybe, like me, you’re yearning for a loved one who’s no longer with you. Then again, you may have a special date planned with your sweetie. Regardless, I pray the following Scriptures will cause your heart to rejoice as you remember the One who loves His children with a love that never ends (Psalm 100:5). To Him be all praise, honor, and glory!

Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us (1 John 4:7-12).

For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8:38-39).

Love never ends . . . So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love (1 Corinthians 13:8a, 13).

And the next time you’re feeling down or doubting God’s goodness, remember Martyn Lloyd- Jones admonition:

“Have you realized that most of your unhappiness in life is due to the fact that you are listening to yourself instead of talking to yourself? The main art in the matter of spiritual living is to know how to handle yourself. You have to take yourself in hand, you have to address yourself, preach to yourself, question yourself. You must say to your soul, ‘Why are thou down cast? What business have you to be disquieted?’ You must turn on yourself, exhort yourself, and say to yourself, ‘Hope thou in God’ instead of muttering in this depressed, unhappy way. And then you must go on to remind yourself of God, who God is and what God is and what God has done and what God has pledged Himself to do.”

 

The Last Enemy

The New Year had barely begun before death visited our family. Dad’s sister, my Aunt Ruby, passed peacefully into eternity on January 12th, eight days shy of her 94th birthday.  She impacted many during her long, full, productive life. Blindness plunged her into darkness some three years ago and, along with the normal effects of aging, shrank her world.  Thus, knowing she’d been released from the constraints of her frail, mortal body consoled our grieving hearts.079

Seeing Mom, Dad, and Dad’s sister, my Aunt Margie, together at Aunt Ruby’s funeral brought to mind a long-ago conversation with my late husband, Ray. We lamented the number of loved ones we were bound to lose in the years ahead. You see, Mom was one of eight siblings, Dad one of ten. Including spouses, I once had 30 aunts and uncles. Now two aunts remain and only three of the 18 brothers and sisters.

Two weeks after Aunt Ruby’s passing, the news of basketball great Kobe Bryant’s death in a helicopter crash reverberated around the world. I don’t follow the NBA, but I know Kobe possessed legendary talent and set a number of records during his 20-year career. Now retired, he died en route to a youth basketball tournament, accompanied by his 13-year-old daughter and seven others – parents, players, and the pilot. 055I grieved, not as a sports fan, but as a widow who knows what it’s like to bid your beloved husband goodbye on an ordinary day, never to see him alive again. Because Ray was called Home at age 39, long before most of the relatives whose loss we anticipated grieving together.

Then, less than a week later, while still vulnerable to unpredictable bouts of tears provoked by the losses described above, I received unthinkable news.  My cousin’s 5-year-old granddaughter died in a car accident on a slippery, snow-covered road in Illinois. As Grammie to 4, 6, and 8-year-old grandchildren of my own, I couldn’t let the scenario play out in my mind. Nonetheless, little Evie’s death colored my thoughts for days, as my anguished soul cried out, “Lord, this hurts so much! It’s not supposed to be this way!”

Indeed it isn’t. We weren’t meant to get sick or grow old much less die. But when Adam and Eve chose to disobey, death entered in. (Genesis 3:17-19) All creation has been groaning under the curse ever since, for the wages of sin is death. (Romans 8:19-23; Romans 6:23)

Grieving with Hope

Praise God, He didn’t leave us in that helpless, hopeless state! (John 3:16; Romans 5) So we grieve, but not as those who have no hope. (1 Thessalonians 4:13)

No stranger to navigating sudden, profound loss, I strapped on my time-tested life preserver woven over the years from precious, promise-filled scriptures. Buffeted by waves of sorrow, I clung to hope that provides a sure anchor for my soul: death doesn’t get the final say. (Hebrews 6:19-20)

Jesus’ resurrection guarantees our own victory over death, the final enemy. For those who belong to Him, death isn’t the end. It’s a glorious beginning to eternity with Him.

At Ray’s funeral, one of the pastors read passage after passage outlining the assurances we have as believers. I offer several of them here. May they comfort our hearts when we experience the inevitable losses of this life, knowing Jesus has overcome all worldly tribulations. Even death.

(Jesus said) “Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also.”  (John 14:1-3)

I tell you this, brothers: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. Behold! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed. For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality. When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written: “Death is swallowed up in victory.” “O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. (1 Corinthians 15:50-57)

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)

Sibling Rivalry

In my post, “Tidings of Comfort and Joy” (see Archives, December 2019), I shared some thoughts from the devotion I presented at our women’s Christmas brunch. In writing that piece, I focused primarily on the good tidings of God’s promise to be with us: “I will be your God; you will be my people; I will dwell among you.”  Today I turn my attention to the other half of the message I delivered to the women in attendance.

Scripture is full of precious promises of God’s presence. Yet too often the noise and busyness of the world drown out the tidings of comfort and joy associated with God’s assurances. Or Satan tempts us to doubt. “Where’s God now?” he taunts. “Did He really say He wouldn’t leave you? Ever??”

Though His presence is sufficient, God didn’t intend for us to go it alone. Created in His image, we’re relational beings. Having been adopted into His family, we have spiritual brothers and sisters to remind us of truth, to testify to His faithfulness, and to be His hands and feet as we minister to one another.

045My baby sister barely reached 8 months of age, hence I grew up an only child with no sibling rivalry and no one to bicker with. But I saw plenty of both as I raised my daughters and now witness more of the same as I spend time with my grandchildren.

“Mine!”

“Me first!!”

“I was playing with that!!!”

Sound familiar?

Sadly, similar rivalries and bickering occur in the family of God. Remember the mother who asked Jesus if her sons could be seated next to Him in heaven, one on His left, the other on His right? Talk about a bold request! (Matthew 20:20-28) Then there were the disciples Jesus caught arguing about who would be the greatest. (Luke 22:24-27) Our presumptions may be more subtle, but they’re there, remnants of our sinful nature that won’t be fully eradicated until we’re called Home.

In the instances cited, Jesus made it clear the world’s definition of greatness didn’t apply to His disciples. Instead of exalting themselves, they were to follow His example by humbly serving others.

But God’s directives regarding His children’s interactions don’t stop there.  Scripture contains numerous passages expressing God’s will for our dealings with one another. Consider this one from Colossians:

Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.  And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony (Colossians 3:12-14).

With our elder Brother as our example, we’re told to forgive one another, to be compassionate and kind, and most importantly, to love one another. In fact, Jesus commanded us to love one another so well that it sets us apart. If we do, it will make others notice (John 13:34-35). Even better, it may make them long to be part of God’s family.

During a recent visit, one of the missionaries our church supports described such a scenario. He became acquainted with a shopkeeper in the country where he and his wife serve and invited him to church. The shopkeeper accepted his invitation because he knew him to be a “nice” person. Even so, he was unprepared to meet a church full of “nice” people.  Wonderment at the tangible difference he observed provided an opportunity for the missionary to explain the why behind the behavior.

I put “nice” in quotes because as believers we know apart from Christ, even our best deeds are like filthy rags (Isaiah 64:6). We’re utterly incapable of conducting ourselves according to the Lord’s commands. But, praise God, His promise to be with us includes sending the Holy Spirit to remind us of Jesus’ teachings, to help us want to obey, and to enable us to do so (John 14:16, 26; Philippians 2:13), albeit imperfectly until we’re ushered into heaven.

044My sister’s death left an empty spot, a life-long yearning to have been able to grow up and grow old with her. In spite of my daughters’ and grandchildren’s childhood squabbling, they’re family, forever part of each other. And so it is in God’s family as He knits our hearts and lives together in love.

O, Lord, thank You for not only promising to never leave us or forsake us, but for also giving us each other, brothers and sisters in Christ. Please help us to follow our elder Brother’s example of putting others’ interests before our own, setting aside all rivalries and jealousy, loving and forgiving as He loves and forgives us. In so doing, may we draw others to You, ever ready to give a reason for the hope that is within us.

 

Welcome Home

Two years ago our church leaders decided it would be good to form a Welcome Team to greet visitors and members alike on Sunday mornings. I wasn’t surprised to see Gene Hunt’s name on the list of volunteers for the new team. Gene, a longtime pastor, was retired by then. Nonetheless, I clearly recall how he visited me and my husband, Ray, soon after we first attended Midway Presbyterian Church, where he served as assistant pastor, in July 1992. From that early encounter and across the ensuing years I came to know Gene as a natural when it came to welcoming others – genuine, warm, and caring.

Thus it also came as no surprise that Gene would be in the narthex greeting people even on Sundays when he wasn’t officially assigned to the task. Those of us within hearing range would smile when we heard him heartily exclaim, “Hey, this was great! Let’s do it again sometime. How about next Sunday?”, as he shook hands with visitors after morning worship.

240Gene entered his heavenly Home last month. I had the privilege of attending his memorial service. The sanctuary of our small church overflowed as several hundred people from all stages of Gene’s life gathered to celebrate by worshiping the One he faithfully served, for we do not grieve as those who have no hope. (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18)

Even so, tears mingled with laughter as various speakers shared reminiscences about our beloved brother because death does bring about a time of separation until Jesus’ promised return. I blotted at intermittent tears until one of my fellow congregants described a heavenly scene where Gene was greeting others, complete with the signature phrase I described above. That did it – my tears escaped and spilled down my cheeks. I sorely sensed the void Gene’s passing would leave on Sunday mornings.

One of Gene’s grandsons spoke next. His comments included a recounting of his grandfather’s testimony – how he’d been born into a non-Christian family, to parents who made no effort to take him to church. But after Gene’s dad died, God providentially placed his family in a neighborhood where he became friends with a little boy whose family was greatly involved in the life of the local Presbyterian church. Sonny would drag Gene along because he didn’t want to go alone. In Gene’s words, “I was enfolded into this community of believers and moved among them as if I belonged. It never occurred to me that I was an outsider. It all seemed perfectly natural and normal. Now I see that it was supernatural. It was the Gospel of grace being lived out in daily life.”[1]

I’d heard Gene’s testimony before, but it wasn’t until that moment I clearly recognized the connection between the tag-along boy, loved and accepted by a long-ago church family, and the man I was blessed to know, who genuinely loved others and welcomed them as he’d been welcomed. He never forgot what it meant to be included even though he “had no resources to contribute to the church.”[2]

Sound familiar? This storyline should resonate with every believer: For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. (Ephesians 2:8-9) Furthermore, the Gospel itself is welcoming. Once we were separated from Christ, strangers to the covenants of promise. But now in Christ Jesus we have been brought near by the blood of Christ . . . So we are no longer strangers and aliens, but fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God. (Ephesians 2:12-13, 19)

I was one of the greeters last Sunday. After the worship service, a couple of folks asked if I’d had a chance to talk to our visitors (yes, briefly). Then one of us began to recite Gene’s phrase and the three of us finished in unison, “Let’s do it again. How about next Sunday?”, agreeing we need to add his words to our exit lines. We shared a laugh, warm with the memory of the man who showed us how to love others as we’ve been loved.

I expect God assigned Gene to the varsity greeting team as soon as he arrived on the other side. I like to imagine the day I’ll get to see him again, welcoming me with a big smile and another of his classic phrases, “Ain’t God good?!” Oh yes, Gene, so very good! I pray He will enable me to serve Him and others joyfully as you did, from the overflow of a grateful heart.

 

[1] Susan Hunt, “Your Home A Place of Grace”, (Wheaton, IL, Crossway Books, 2000) pp. 26-27

[2] Ibid, p. 27

Tidings of Comfort and Joy

IMG_2338I don’t know about you, but in spite of my best intentions to remain calm and focused on the real reason for the season, I unravel at some point in December. I experience inevitable episodes of middle-of-the-night sleeplessness wondering if I’ll ever get everything done in time. Similarly-distressing thoughts creep into my waking hours. My and my granddaughter’s back-to-back birthdays less than a week before Christmas add to the myriad festivities and to-dos. However, it also means there’s lots of shared joy and family time.

And so I’ve fixed myself a cup of tea, warmed up some breakfast bread, and silenced my phone. Even though my kitchen looks like an Amazon delivery van collided with a Kroger truck, it’s time for a reset. I hope you’ll join me as I revisit some reflections from a brief devotional I prepared for our women’s Christmas brunch earlier this month.

And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. Luke 2:10-11

The news of great joy contained in the angels’ message to the frightened shepherds allows us to extend tidings of comfort and joy to others and ourselves. Generations upon generations before that night in Bethlehem, God made a covenant with His people: I will be your God, you will be my people, I will dwell with you (Exodus 29:45-46; 1 Peter 2:9-10).

Let that sink in a minute. The Almighty, Everlasting God, complete in Himself, not lacking anything, nonetheless chose a people for Himself and promised to dwell among them. How amazing!

Even though the faithful followers in Old Testament times believed His promises, they never could have imagined how He’d carry out His plan. For in the fullness of time, the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, bringing Light to a dark, dark world (John 1:1-5).

The second Person of the Trinity humbled himself, not counting equality with God something to be grasped (Philippians 2:5-8). The tiny baby born in a manger grew into a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief, and took our sins upon Himself (Isaiah 53:3-6) – fully God and fully man. A mystery our finite minds can’t comprehend, but one that gives us hope for the present and assurance of eternity.

Jesus’ disciples were troubled when He told them the time was drawing near for Him to depart. Yet He declared it would be even better because He would send the Holy Spirit – the Helper, Counselor, and Comforter – to remind us of all He’d said. God not only with us, but in us! (John 14:16-17; 26)

Furthermore, Jesus assured us He’d prepare a place for us and return to take us to our IMG_2337forever Home (John 14:2-3). The Apostle Paul wrote: nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus, not even death (Romans 8:38-39). In fact, to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord (2 Corinthians 5:6-8).

Emmanuel, God with us, from first breath to last and into eternity – tidings of great joy indeed.

* * * * *

I wish you a merry, Christ-centered Christmas, dear readers! As my friend Karen Hodge often says after a podcast[1], I hope you’ll find some encouraging nugget in this post. Tuck it in your heart and return to it in these final days before Christmas whenever you need to quiet your spirit and refocus on the greatest Gift ever given.

 

[1] Karen Hodge serves as Co-ordinator for Women’s Ministry for the Christian Discipleship Ministry of the PCA (Presbyterian Church in America). One of the ways she helps connect women to resources is by hosting the weekly enCourage podcast.

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.