Celebrate the Light

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
John 1:5

Traditions

I’m a Christmas baby, born on December 19th. Mom and Dad brought me home on Christmas Eve, and Dad hung a bootie up as my first stocking. Despite my birthday falling within a week of Christmas, Mom made sure I had a birthday celebration each year, complete with cake and presents. Some years we invited friends over for a party, while other times, Dad took us out to dinner at a nice restaurant. And each year, my gifts included a pretty dress from Mom.

Christmas traditions were equally dear and included shopping, preparing dozens of goodie boxes to share with friends, decorating, and attending Christmas cantatas and worship services.

As the years passed, I married and started a family, so we tweaked and added to our traditions. We joked that our holiday season begins with daughter Mary’s late-October birthday and continues into November with Mom’s birthday and Thanksgiving.  Granddaughter Lyla’s birthday is the day after mine, then Christmas. We finally wrap up our celebrations on New Year’s Day. Different foods and festivities accompany each occasion, as do plenty of reminiscences and lots of photo-taking.

Just Skip It

Several weeks ago, I began to contemplate this year’s holiday season. Unlike most years when joyful anticipation colors my feelings, I thought, “I wish I could fast-forward past the holidays.”

You see, for the first time in my life, Mom won’t be with me to celebrate. Granted, we curtailed our goodie-making some years ago, and Mom’s ability to fully participate in shopping, wrapping, and sending out Christmas cards had declined the last few years. However, her smile still shone brightly, and her joy at being together was infectious.

Pondering Mom’s absence on my birthday and Christmas morning weighed heavy on my heart.

Not Celebrate?!

Those dismal thoughts didn’t have a chance to put down roots, though. Almost as quickly as they came, another took their place, “What do you mean, not celebrate?! How would that honor her memory, much less the One whose birth we’re celebrating?”

Last week’s sermon[1] further dispelled the notion of merely going through the motions this December. After acknowledging that not everyone experiences hope and joy during the holidays, Pastor Donovan reminded us of the following:

  • Biblical hope isn’t maybe-things-will-work-out wishful thinking, but the confident expectation that God will act according to His purpose, plan, and promises.
  • Advent is a season of celebrating God choosing to come near, to save us. (What a gift!) We must:
    • Gratefully acknowledge and receive the gift. Don’t take it for granted or think, “I’ve heard the Christmas story so many times.” Never stop marveling at the fact the Word became flesh and dwelt among us!
    • Actively cultivate hope by remembering God’s past faithfulness to look forward with assurance. God is worthy of our joy, expectation, and trust. He will fulfill all His promises.
    • Communicate that hope to the hopeless. Celebrate what is and what’s coming. Don’t complain about what (or who) no longer is.
    • We’re to be agents of hope by sharing and celebrating the Light of the World.

Grief Veteran

Shortly after Mom passed away, a friend described me as a grief veteran. It was her way of encouraging me, of acknowledging the path wouldn’t be easy, but it would be passable. Having been widowed at age 38, knowing what it’s like to miss a loved one across over two decades of holidays yet find joy in celebrating and remembering, I knew she was right.

This Dietrich Bonhoeffer quote is one of my favorites regarding grief:

Nothing can make up for the absence of someone we love . . . it is nonsense to say that God fills the gap; God doesn’t fill it, but on the contrary, God keeps it empty and so helps us keep alive our former communion with each other, even at the cost of pain . . . the dearer and richer the memories, the more difficult the separation. But gratitude changes the pangs of memory into tranquil joy. The beauties of the past are borne, not as a thorn in the flesh, but as a precious gift in themselves.”

Each year when I set up the Dickens Village my late husband Ray started for me or purchase poinsettias in memory of the last Christmas he worked at Home Depot, tears of sorrow and joy mingle together. Sorrow that he’s no longer here to help me set up the village or see how much it’s grown, but such joy and gratitude for the love and years we shared. As Bonhoeffer observed, the memories are a precious gift in themselves.

It is the same with Mom. I cherish all the years we had to laugh, love, and celebrate in so many ways. Though she’s no longer physically present, I know she’ll always be with me.

Pass it On

I’m blessed to have three grandchildren to create and share traditions with. But I’m most excited to share the true meaning of Christmas as we celebrate the Light that came into the world. All the love and joy bound up in our celebrations is a reflection of God’s great love and an outpouring of thanksgiving for the blessings we have in Christ. Because He came as a tiny baby, lived a sinless life, and died on our behalf, death doesn’t have the final say. The circle of love is unbroken. And one day, we’ll be reunited around His throne to praise His name together forever.

Heavenly Father, thank You for sending Your Son, the Light of the World, to bring everlasting hope to this dark world. Regardless of the source of darkness – sin, grief, illness, loss – we have the confidence that the darkness will never overcome the Light. Please help us not to hide our light under a basket, but place it on a pedestal for all to see, ever ready to share the reason for our hope.


[1] “Advent: Having Hope and God With Us in This World,” Pastor David Donovan, Grace Covenant Church, November 27, 2021.

Overwhelmed

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places.
Ephesians 1:3

This post is based on an article I wrote for the November/December edition of our church’s bi-monthly women’s ministry newsletter. Instead of getting bogged down in all the to-dos of the holiday season, I wanted to remind my sisters in Christ and myself to stay focused on the blessings God poured out on us when He sent Jesus. I had no idea then how much I’d need the message in the weeks that followed. But God did.

Perspective

What came to your mind when you read the title of this post? Was your initial reaction positive or negative? Usually, when I say I’m overwhelmed, I’ve reached the point of waking up in the middle of the night, wondering how I’ll ever get everything done.

A quick check of Merriam-Webster online  yields results that support the negative connotations of the verb:

1: to upset, overthrow

2a: to cover over completely: submerge b: to overcome by superior force or numbers c: to overpower in thought or feeling

However,  inspired by our pastor’s sermon series on Ephesians, I’ve recently been pondering a more positive take on the word.  In Ephesians 1:3-14, the Apostle Paul gushes over God’s blessings in Christ:

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace, which he lavished upon us, in all wisdom and insight making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.

In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will, so that we who were the first to hope in Christ might be to the praise of his glory. In him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory.

I’ve read that passage many times, but the idea of Paul gushing over God’s goodness is new to me. Yet that’s precisely what he’s doing! I imagine him exalting God, nearly breathless, as he recounts all the blessings that are ours in Jesus. Pastor David has encouraged us to do likewise and allow ourselves to be overwhelmed by God’s goodness toward us.

The Holiday Hustle

As the holiday season ramps up, so does my sense of overwhelmedness.  I contemplate adding cherished holiday traditions to my already bulging to-do list and restless nights are sure to follow. But this year, heartened by Pastor David’s invitation to embrace and embody our identity in Christ, I hope to approach the season differently. Rather than letting my to-do list have the final say, I pray I’ll be overwhelmed instead by all the blessings that are ours because God chose to send us the best gift ever – His only begotten Son.

A Positive Practice

Several days after I submitted the newsletter article, my 90-year-old father had a stroke. I’d been preparing to do battle with my usual holiday stresses when a barrage of new responsibilities hit. In those early days of trying to ensure I procured the proper care for Dad and managing day-to-day logistics once he returned home, I was tempted to ignore the holidays altogether. Over and over again, I thought, “I feel so overwhelmed.” And each time I did, the words I’d written came back to me, and I reminded myself of all the blessings that are mine in Christ.

After several weeks of this practice, the sequence has become instinctive. I sense the stress starting to build, sometimes multiple times a day. “How will I ever handle this?” runs through my mind, quickly followed by, “I feel so overwhelmed!” The once-negative word triggers the new, positive response, shifting my focus to the realities greater than my circumstances. I have all I’ll ever need in Christ, plus the promise He’ll never leave or forsake me:

He has said, “I will never [under any circumstances] desert you [nor give you up nor leave you without support, nor will I in any degree leave you helpless], nor will I forsake or let you down or relax My hold on you [assuredly not]!” (Hebrews 13:5, Amplified)

An Invitation

Will you join me? Pick one or more of Paul’s affirmations to meditate on the next time you feel weighed down by cares or responsibilities: In Christ, we are blessed, chosen, blameless, adopted into God’s family, redeemed, forgiven, sealed with the Holy Spirit, destined to receive the inheritance held secure for us in heaven. Just reading this makes my heart sing!

Take another look at the last definition above, “to overpower in thought or feeling.” When the truth of Who God is and all He’s done for us in Christ overpowers our worries, fears, and anxieties, it is a most blessed conquest indeed.

Dear Lord, as we shift our gaze from the immediate to the eternal, I pray our thoughts and feelings will be overwhelmed in the most positive way by Your amazing grace and all You’ve blessed us with in Christ, to the praise of Your glory.

One Piece

God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear though the earth gives way, though the mountains be moved into the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble at its swelling. 
Psalm 46:1-3

A Song from the Past

Lyrics from the Wayne Watson song, “Hard Times,” have been replaying in my mind recently, not as an annoying melody that I can’t get out of my head, but as a gentle reminder of an eternal promise –  the Lord will never leave me or forsake me:

Hey, did I hear you say
You’ve fallen on some hard times?
That your dreams are crushed
And scattered to the wind
And if there’s a someday
When the pain will be forgotten
Right now, it’s too much
For your heart to comprehend

You say you wish that you
Could get back to the good times
Back when life and love
And plans fell into place
Before the floods came
Before the dam started breaking
Back when the waves kept their distance
From your faith

But in the hard times
When your world has gone to pieces
You pick up the one piece
That matters most
’Cause in hard times
You learn to hold on to Jesus
Oh, there’s no other place
To know the strength of your faith
But in the hard times[1]

When we moved to Georgia in 1992, it felt like the pieces of my life were scattered. My husband, two little girls, and I left our home, church, and friends, some of whom we’d known for years during our time in Delaware. But, by the time the song came out the following year, we were settling into our new community, church, school, and work routines. We chose a home close to church, the girls’ school, and Ray’s employer, which meant I had a 63-mile drive one-way to my job. Instead of a burden, though, my commute gave me some uninterrupted time with the Lord. I sometimes quipped, “The Lord took away the support system I had in Delaware, but He gave me Himself and an hourlong drive to Dalton.”

I spent the drive time praying and listening to contemporary Christian artists like Wayne Watson. The combination of music plus truth ensured the concepts they sang about were securely planted in my memory.

The One Piece hadn’t remained in Delaware. He was very much with me.

More Scattered Pieces

Little did I know that the upheaval caused by the move would pale compared to what was to come in April 1997. A few weeks after his 39th birthday, Ray went to work, had a fatal heart attack, and never returned home. My partner, the person I depended on most, was gone. Left to raise our two young daughters alone, I turned to the One who promised to be a Father to the fatherless and a Defender of widows. I found Him faithful.

In December 2010, as I stood by my mom’s hospital gurney, I received news that would rock my world yet again: her heart catheterization revealed three life-threatening blockages. The attendants began prepping Mom for surgery immediately so the surgeons could get to work as soon as an operating room became available. I stood there stunned, feeling so alone. But I wasn’t alone at all. God was with me.

Late January 2011 found me sitting in a windowless conference room across from my manager and her boss. Though I anticipated a life-changing message, hearing her words still caused me to go numb. “I know you’re expecting to have your annual review, but you won’t be having it because your job has been eliminated.” Just like that, my 30-year career ended. But God had other plans, new, incredible pieces to add to my life.

Late one night in April 2019, I left Mom in the emergency department, trudged to my car, and wondered if I’d see her alive again. The doctor’s diagnosis, aspiration pneumonia, didn’t bode well for someone so tiny and frail. I tossed and turned most of the night, countering fear with all I knew to be true about God’s character. Mom made it through 24 grueling days in the hospital and rehab, and we joyfully welcomed her home.

We were blessed to have her for two more years until she fell and broke her hip in mid-April 2021. The ten days between the fall and her Homegoing were some of the most difficult I’ve ever navigated. The excruciating physical pain she felt found its counterpart in my emotional distress. Even so, the Lord was near, directing and redirecting, until the moment He called her Home.

Another Storm

And now here I am, barely six months after losing my precious mother, dealing with the after-effects of my 90-year-old father’s stroke. There are moments when I’m tempted to despair, when the thought of burying my remaining parent is too much to bear.

But then the chorus from “Hard Times” starts playing in my head, and I pick up the One Piece that matters most and hold on as tightly as I can, knowing that even if my grasp starts to fail, He’ll never loosen His grip on me.

Strength Training

The lyrics, “There’s no better way to know the strength of your faith but in hard times,” remind me of the Apostle James’ statement, “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness.” (James 1:2) The Apostle Paul affirms and expands upon the concept in his letter to the Romans: “We rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us (Romans 5:3-5).

Rejoicing in suffering and finding joy in trials is counterintuitive until you realize experiencing difficult circumstances is the best way to grow our faith because we find God to be trustworthy to keep His promises, not sometimes, but every time. I don’t know what you’re going through, dear reader. Maybe life is smooth and hassle-free at the moment, but if you’re facing hardships and challenges, I pray you’ll do what I did above. Remind yourself of times in the past when God has been with you and know He will be with you to the end, no matter what He providentially allows into your life.

Dear Lord, how I praise and thank You that You are our Rock and our Refuge, an ever-present help in times of trouble. Even if other pieces of our lives are scattered, in disarray, or missing altogether, You will never leave or forsake us.  


[1] The first two verses and chorus of “Hard Times,” released on Wayne Watson’s 1993 album, “A Beautiful Place.” Words and music by Gary and Lisa Driskell.

One Piece

Abiding Love

Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends . . . So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three, but the greatest of these is love.
1 Corinthians 13:7-8a; 13

Do They Remember?

Several months after Mom passed away, Dad asked a surprising question, “Do you think the little children remember Thelma?”

Puzzled, I replied, “Do you mean Joshua, Lyla, and Emma?”[1]

Dad nodded; a mix of sadness and resignation lined his face.

Confusion turned to disbelief. I assured him, “Of course they do! At least one of us mentions her every time we’re together, especially if snakes come up in our conversation!”

Despite my lighthearted attempt to console him by referring to Mom’s most despised critters, I understood Dad’s concern. Given their ages, my grandchildren won’t have many detailed memories of specific moments shared with Mom by the time they’re adults.

Then again, I know they’ll never forget her.

I Remember

How can I make such a bold statement? Because I know firsthand how unconditional love transcends the grave.

Though my dear maternal grandfather, PaPa,  died over 50 years ago when I was a couple of months shy of my seventh birthday, tears of love and longing well up when I think of him. My memories are few, but precious – sitting on his lap eating apple slices, walking hand-in-hand to the small general store, stopping at the post office, waving to the conductor and counting the cars as the train passed by his house.

I’ve eaten an apple almost every day for as long as I can remember and began sharing apple slices with my grandchildren as soon as they could chew them properly. I attribute both practices to the connection to my grandfather. I eat and share and think of him. I still feel the warmth of his love.

Photographs and Memories

Which memories might fill my grandchildren’s mental portfolio of recollections of time spent with Mom? In addition to her loathing of snakes, I expect they’ll recall her reading to them, as all three snuggled as close to Mama as possible to see the story illustrations. Then there was the ritual of standing next to their diminutive great-grandmother to see how much they needed to grow to catch up to her, something Joshua accomplished the last time they compared heights. Maybe there will even be memories of marathon Play-Doh sessions or coloring with her. And I hope they’ll remember making goodies with her a few days before her last Christmas.

I have photos and details to go along with all those experiences to help reinforce them in the minds of my grandchildren. And like me with my grandfather, an enduring sense of her love for them will bind those memories together. 

Legacy of Faith

Tucked amidst my memories of PaPa are those of attending Sunday school at the little country church where he served as a deacon. When Mom talked about her father, she often mentioned how much he loved God and that church and how he was there to serve and worship every time the doors were open.

Mom and PaPa were cut from the same cloth. Both small in stature, they had big, compassionate hearts and lived their lives based on their abiding faith in God, a faith they instilled in subsequent generations.  Mom brought some of her childhood Sunday school papers to show Joshua, Lyla, and Emma during one of our weekly visits. Seeing the four of them huddled close, looking at the decades-old leaflets that proclaimed timeless truths, is one of my most cherished memories.

When we held Mom’s funeral in that tiny church, I was able to show my grandchildren the very Sunday school classroom where she’d studied those lessons.

Cloud of Witnesses

During my husband’s graveside service, one of the pastors told then 10-year-old Mary and 7-year-old Jessie their lives would be forever blessed by having a godly father. Even though he was with us for a relatively short time, we continue to experience the impact of Ray’s unconditional love and steadfast faith nearly 25 years later.

Other loved ones people my heritage of faith: A great-aunt, poor by worldly standards, but exceedingly wealthy in grace and kindness. Aunts who didn’t think a visit was complete until they’d fed me, physically and spiritually. Grandmothers with well-worn Bibles and “Jesus Loves Me” on their lips. All of them have long since joined the great cloud of witnesses mentioned in Hebrews 12:1, but their influence lives on.

I’ve pondered these relationships, marveling how love can reach beyond death, undimmed by the passage of time. Though I cherish tangible reminders of departed loved ones, the lasting connections aren’t based on material gifts. They’re woven together from shared experiences undergirded by loving acceptance and encouragement.

Love grounded in faith and hope is the most valuable legacy we can bestow, far more significant than any earthly treasures we might bequeath. I suppose my thoughts frequently turn to those who loved me well because I want to love the way they loved, to pass on the legacy they left me.

The Father’s Love

The Father first loved us by sending His Son to die for us, the just for the unjust. Empowered by the Spirit, we are to love others as God has loved us (1 John 4:9-11). Jesus even said His followers’ love for each other should be notable, a distinguishing characteristic  (John 13:34-35).

And how blessed we are that nothing on earth or in heaven will ever be able to separate us from God’s love:  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 8:38-9).

What a glorious assurance!

Just as I recognize the importance of telling my grandchildren about the faithful loved ones who are no longer with us, I know telling them about the Father who loves them is even more important, with implications that will last for eternity (Psalm 78:1-8).

Dear Lord, thank You for Your infinite, eternal love. May we live in such a way that our love and faith are evident to a watching world, hallmarks of our relationship with You. And may we love others so well that the effects endure even after You’ve called us Home, connecting one generation to another until we’re reunited around Your throne.


[1] My grandchildren, who were 9, 7, and 5 when Mom died.

Help Is on the Way

For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first.
1 Thessalonians 4:16

A Faithful Friend

It took several months after my husband’s fatal heart attack before I was ready to hear the specifics of his final hours. But, when I was, one of his closest colleagues shared those details with me.

After describing Ray’s busy afternoon helping customers with plants and garden supplies at The Home Depot, Barbara went on to recount how she was one of those waiting in line to perform CPR prior to the EMTs’ arrival. Though she didn’t get to do so, she was unwilling to leave her friend’s side and asked if she could ride to the hospital in the ambulance with Ray. When the paramedics denied that request, Barbara followed close behind in her own vehicle as the ambulance’s siren wailed, clearing a path through traffic.  

I think of Ray and that ambulance ride almost every time I hear a siren. And when I do, I say a brief prayer that the Lord will be with the emergency personnel and those who will receive their aid.

Another Day, Another Siren

On the morning of April 20, 2021, 24 years and a day after Ray’s sudden death, I stood on my parents’ driveway awaiting the arrival of the fire department EMTs. I knew from previous calls to 911 that they’d be the first on the scene. Having already let my adult children know Mom had fallen and most likely broken her hip, I texted, “Paramedics are on their way. I hear the sirens.”

The firetruck pulled up by the curb, its siren silenced upon entering the neighborhood. Struggling to contain my tears, I led the three solemn men into the house. Two knelt beside Mom, comforting her and assessing her condition, while the third asked Dad and me a series of questions regarding her medical history and the circumstances surrounding her fall.

Soon a second siren signaled the approach of the ambulance. The crew conferred with those already tending to Mom and took over her care once apprised of the situation. I expect the image of them carrying her out of the house, cradled in her pink sheet, pain and resignation lining her face, will stay with me the rest of my life.

I felt so helpless as the paramedics loaded Mom, closed the doors, and drove away. Yet even in my despair, I knew I wasn’t alone, and neither was Mom.

Faithful God

The Bible, God’s infallible Word, is one continuous story of God keeping His promise to be with His chosen people. The sweet communion Adam and Eve enjoyed with God was broken when they disobeyed His command not to eat of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil (Genesis 3:1-10). But their disobedience didn’t catch God by surprise. Before the foundation of the world, the Father and Son covenanted to save a people for themselves, even though it would cost the precious blood of the perfect Son (Ephesians 1:3-10).

Hundreds of years passed from the time of God’s promise in Genesis 3:15 until the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. In those intervening years, God sent angels and prophets with messages to affirm His promise.

And then, in the fullness of time, Jesus, Son of God, yet fully man, was born in Bethlehem. An angel brought the good news of great joy to shepherds tending their flocks by night (Luke 2:1-12). Help had arrived in the form of a tiny baby Who would live a sinless life, take our infirmities upon Himself, and pay the penalty we owed (Isaiah 53:5-6). 

The message of hope resounded through the heavens. And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!” (Luke 2:13-14)

The Promised Helper

Jesus dwelt among us for a while, full of grace and truth, but He didn’t come to stay, at least not yet. His disciples were distraught at the thought of life without Him, but He promised to be with us always, to the end of the age (Matthew 28:20b). He even went so far as to say it was better for Him to depart so the Holy Spirit could come (John 16:7). Indeed, the promised Helper dwells within every child of God, reminding us of His promises and directives and empowering us to persevere (John 14:25-26).

And when trials beset us, and we don’t even know how to pray, the Spirit intercedes for us with groans too deep for words (Romans 8:26-27).

A Trumpet Call

God is not a man that He can lie. He is trustworthy and faithful (Numbers 23:19). All of His promises find their yes and amen in Jesus (2 Corinthians 1:20). Though God has already fulfilled many of His promises, ultimate consummation awaits. A day is coming when the mighty trumpet of God will herald Jesus’ return.

Unlike Jesus’ first coming, barely noticed by the world, His second will be impossible to ignore as He assumes His earthly, eternal reign. Every knee will bow, and every tongue confess that Jesus is Lord (Philippians 2:9-11). Our rescue will be complete. Death will be swallowed up in victory once and for all, and the dwelling place of God will be with man (Revelation 21:1-4).

Until then, we will face hardships, but we can take heart, Jesus has overcome the world (John 16:33). The darkness has not quenched the Light, and it never will.

O Lord, how I look forward to the day of Jesus’ return when You will make all things new, and death will be no more. I thank You that while we wait, confident in all your promises, we’re never alone as Your indwelling Spirit guides, helps, and comforts us.

Live It Out

So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works.
James 2:17-18

The Letter

Soon after Mom passed away, Dad began the arduous task of sorting through her things. Each evening when I went over to prepare dinner, he would show me the day’s treasures. I know how taxing it can be to go through a loved one’s belongings, having done so after my husband Ray died over two decades ago.

One of the gems Dad found and shared with me was a letter Mom wrote to him after they decided to move to Georgia, a decision precipitated by Ray’s passing. They were living in Charlotte at the time but had been considering relocation options since Dad’s retirement several years prior.  Ray’s sudden, unexpected death added urgency to their decision, and they graciously agreed to move to Georgia to be close to my elementary-aged daughters and me. Though such a move had been one of the options all along, circumstances made it feel like there was no longer a choice, and misgivings plagued my dad.

Words to Live By

As I read Mom’s words, penned so long ago and at a time of great stress for all of us, it was like reading a manifesto of her life. Her brief letter, written to calm and encourage my dad, oozed faith and overflowed with scriptural principles. Consider these statements[1] and their biblical underpinnings:

  • “I know we’re making sacrifices, but if it will make a difference for Patsy, Mary, and Jessie, then I am willing to do whatever we can to help them.”
    Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others  (Philippians 2:3-4).
  • “We did not know what to do with our time. Well, I think God in His own way is showing us that we are needed and have a purpose.”
    For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope. Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will hear you. You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart (Jeremiah  29:11-13).
    For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them (Ephesians 2:10).
  • “I do not feel that a move to Georgia is finishing our lives, but maybe it can be a new beginning.”
    Behold, I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert (Isaiah 43:19).
  • “We do not know our future or how much longer we will be on this earth, so we must live each day to the fullest and live our lives for God.”
    So teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom (Psalm 90:12).
    So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God (1 Corinthians 10:31).
  • “God is in control, and when our time on this earth has been served, then we too shall be gone.”
    Many are the plans in the mind of a man, but it is the purpose of the Lord that will stand (Proverbs 19:21).
    In your book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there was none of them (Psalm 139:16).
  • “My hope and prayer is that we shall be prepared so our soul will be rewarded with a place in Heaven with our Lord and Saviour.”
    Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect (Matthew 24:44).
    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 14:3).
  • “It is up to us if we make things miserable or good for ourselves.”
    Why, my soul, are you downcast? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Savior and my God (Psalm 42:11).
    Finally, brothers, 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).
    For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all.  So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal (2 Corinthians 4:17-18).
  • “My prayer is that you will trust God and lean on Him so you can get ok.”
    Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight (Proverbs 3:5-6).
    Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus (Philippians 4:6-7).

A Life of Integrity

Talk is cheap. Actions speak louder than words. Familiar catchphrases, but Scripture confirms their veracity. The Apostle James, who wrote the sometimes controversial sentiments in the introductory verses, also admonished, “But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves” (James 1:22). Jesus Himself instructed, “You are the light of the world . . . let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:14, 16).

We are saved by grace alone through faith alone, a gift of God, not by works (Ephesians 2:8-9), but once saved, the power of the Spirit enables us to produce good fruit (Galatians 5:22-23) and fuels our desire to serve the Lord out of love and gratitude for all He’s done for us (Philippians 2:2-13).

I don’t doubt it took Mom some time to find the words to express her feelings and concerns. Nevertheless, writing the letter was the easy part; it was much more challenging to live out the principles it embodied. Reading Mom’s words, knowing all that had transpired since she wrote them, confirmed what I already knew. Her life was built on the Solid Rock, the One Who never failed her, Whom she trusted completely (Psalm 18:1-2).

My daughter Mary commented in her eulogy, “I don’t remember Mama ever sitting us down and teaching us a Bible lesson, but she taught us every day by the way she lived.”

And so she did, for as long as I can remember, selflessly loving others, showing us Jesus, and pointing us to the hope we have in Him. What a legacy!

Dear Lord, thank You for the blessing of a godly mother. Please help us to follow her example as she followed You.


[1] Quoted directly from Mom’s letter.

Who’s in Control?

Many are the plans in the mind of a man, but it is the purpose of the Lord that will stand.
Proverbs 19:21

As We Age

My mom faced several significant physical challenges during the last decade of her life – an operation to repair her shattered right shoulder[1], a heart attack followed by emergency triple bypass surgery, and aspiration pneumonia that landed her in the hospital for 24 days. Each time, I wondered if we’d lose her, but each time, the Lord sustained her and returned her home to us.

Still, the relentless deterioration associated with aging continued as arthritis pain became a constant companion, and osteoporosis made falling a potentially life-threatening event. I escorted Mom to most of her medical appointments and heard many of her doctors reply to her list of symptoms with a statement beginning with, “As we age.” It was one of Mom’s least favorite phrases since it usually meant there wasn’t much to be done to improve the situation.

It was difficult enough for me to watch Mom’s physical decline, but a year or so ago, I started noticing some changes in her mental capacity. Her inability to balance her checkbook after a long career in banking and failure to successfully produce her delicious pound cake, a recipe she’d been making for 50 years, caused me great consternation. I tried to explain her mistakes away. I didn’t want to embarrass or alarm her, plus I couldn’t bear the thought of there coming a time when my dear mother and best friend didn’t know me, a fate several of my friends have experienced with their parents.

Running in Front of a Freight Train

Mom’s decline, which had been progressing slowly, picked up speed earlier this year, exacerbated by severe pain in her left leg. Dad and I took turns accompanying her to various appointments in search of a definitive cause and potential solution. A steroid shot, low-dose pain meds, massage therapy – nothing helped, at least not for long. There were even times when I fretted my well-meaning attempts to help added to Mom’s misery instead.

All the while, an ominous sense of foreboding formed on the edges of my mind and colored my thoughts. The uneasiness grew with each successive failure to procure help for Mom until one day I told my daughter, “I feel like I’m running in front of a freight train, and I hear it getting closer.”

I got an appointment for Mom with my longtime physician, confident she would help us pinpoint the source of Mom’s pain. A series of X-rays revealed compressed discs in Mom’s lower spine were causing sciatica, those shooting pains that nearly incapacitated her.

Finally, a definitive diagnosis! I made an appointment for Mom to see a pain specialist in hopes he could administer a nerve block or an epidural, anything to give her some relief and enable her to return to at least some of her usual activities.

Sidelined

Sciatica, coupled with the bone-on-bone condition in her right knee, led to her being confined to the main floor of the multi-story house she shared with my dad. Perfectly reasonable considering her age (89) and increasing fragility. But as Mom’s world became ever-smaller, her emotional and mental stability weakened as well.

I watched as my once-active, always-determined mother spent more and more time sitting. When I made my lunchtime phone call, she’d say, “I’m just finishing breakfast. It took me a while to get going this morning.” A similar report accompanied my evening visits, “I didn’t do much today. I just sat here.”

All the while, the sound of that freight train kept getting louder and louder. Mom was slipping away whether I was willing to acknowledge it or not.

Flattened

I kept the afternoon of April 20th, the day we were scheduled to see the pain specialist, in front of Mom. I held it up as a beacon of hope, trying to keep both of us motivated and focused on the long-hoped-for relief instead of the ever-growing pain and despair. But we never made it to the appointment.

Early on the morning of April 20th, Dad called to let me know he’d found Mom on the floor. She’d fallen and most likely broken her hip. At that moment, I knew the freight train had caught up. It flattened me and kept on going.

Yet it was then I also remembered what I had forgotten amidst the increasingly frantic flurry of attempts to help Mom – I wasn’t in control and never had been.

Sovereign Lord

In the truest sense, I hadn’t forgotten God is sovereign over all. I prayed fervently for wisdom for those of us trying to help Mom and for relief of her pain. However, as efforts continually fell short and her condition deteriorated, desperation overtook me. My mind worked overtime trying to figure out how to help Mom, and anxious, guilt-infused thoughts prevented restful sleep.

It was appropriate for me to persist in seeking help for Mom, but at some point, I crossed a line. I didn’t want to let Mom down. But, instead of casting my cares on God and finding peace, I picked up the burden, convinced the outcome depended entirely on my self-fueled efforts.

The timing of Mom’s fall, just a few hours before the appointment with the pain specialist, wasn’t lost on me. I humbly acknowledged God had a different plan, one that would prevail. In the days that followed, Jehoshaphat’s prayer became my mantra, “Lord, (I) don’t know what to do, but (my) eyes are fixed on you.” (2 Chronicles 20:12)

The Lord faithfully went before me, directing and redirecting my steps over the last ten days of Mom’s life. But I’ll save that story for another time. The details of God’s goodness to us as He led Mom Home are deserving of a separate post.

O, Lord, how I thank You that You never meant for us to carry burdens too big for us. As our loving heavenly Father, You invite us to bring every care to You, that we might find peace that passes understanding. Please help us to remember You are sovereign over all, declaring the end from the beginning, always accomplishing Your purposes (Isaiah 46:10).


[1] An injury she sustained after falling off her bed while attempting to change a lightbulb in her ceiling fan!

Heart Check

Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall.
1 Corinthians 10:12

Given the nature of my blog, I share personal stories in almost every post. At times I wonder if I share too much, but I’ve come to realize being real offers more hope and encouragement than if I sugar-coated my experiences. Occasionally though, the Lord nudges me further outside my comfort zone and impresses upon me to use a post to confess something. So, even though it makes me feel more vulnerable than usual, this is one of those posts.

The Big Dump

Over the past few months, I’ve been cleaning out my closet, gradually moving items I rarely wear to my daughter’s old room. The piles containing a mix of professional and casual apparel grew so large my grandchildren barely had space to play with the toys also located in their mom’s former room. Thus, I made a final pass through my closet one recent morning and then carefully folded and boxed everything up. I added some household items I  no longer use, loaded everything into my CR-V, and headed to a nearby donation center.

When I pulled up to the curb and told the attendant I had several boxes of items, he gestured toward a large bin and said, “You can put your stuff in there.” I set one of the larger boxes next to the container and was about to place one of the smaller ones in the bin when he said, “We don’t accept boxes.”

With that, he stepped forward, picked up the box, and dumped its contents into the receptacle. I could barely contain my horror as I watched all the neatly-folded items tumble out, followed by shoes and kitchen gadgets from the other box. The things I’d used, taken care of, and envisioned transferring in nearly-pristine condition to someone else who could use them were in a jumbled heap on top of the stuff dropped off by the person ahead of me. I almost closed the hatch of my car without unloading the rest of the boxes. And since this is a confession of sorts, I’ll admit there was a bag containing several items my dear mother gave me that I couldn’t bear to see added to the mix. When I got home, I returned them to my daughter’s old closet.

Standing Firm or Barely Standing?

Jesus’ discourse recorded in Matthew chapters 5-7 (often referred to as the Sermon on the Mount) contains some of my favorite verses in the whole Bible, including:

Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal,  but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal.  For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also (Matthew 6:19-21).

Though I haven’t settled on a life verse because I have so many favorites, “Lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven” is in the running, so my response at the donation center surprised me. I thought about it for several days, pondering why the dumping of items I’d already decided I didn’t need anymore troubled me so. I think part of it was due to the fact Mom taught me from my earliest days to take care of my things, and seeing them treated so carelessly offended my sense of responsibility. Still, I couldn’t help but wonder if my response indicated I was overly attached to my possessions and somehow saw them as an extension of myself. Did I equate mistreatment of my stuff with mistreating me or, worse, dishonoring the memory of the one who’d given it to me?

Faithful Wounds

The Lord used my reaction to enlighten the eyes of my heart. Regardless of the reason for the hurt, angry, incredulous feelings that sprang up as I stood by the curb, their intensity indicated I am more attached to material things than I realized or wanted to admit. After all, Scripture is clear we won’t take any of those things with us when we die (1Timothy 6:6-7).[1]

Though pained by recognizing the gap between reality and how I perceive myself, I’m thankful the Spirit is faithful to point out the discrepancies. Like a trusted friend who speaks the truth in love (Proverbs 27:6a), I can count on Him to reveal my shortcomings in this and other areas (John 14:26).  But unlike a human companion, He also empowers me to make the necessary changes as He continues to sanctify me (Ephesians 1:19-20).

Have you had a heart check lately, a moment when circumstances challenged you to reevaluate how firmly you’re standing in some spiritual discipline or another? If so, rejoice as I did, knowing your conscience is alert and attentive to the prompting of the Spirit, Who is unfailingly transforming us more and more into the image of Christ (2 Corinthians 3:18).   

Dear Lord, thank You for the Spirit’s work in our lives, instructing, reminding, and empowering us. Please help us to be ever-mindful of His promptings as we endeavor to work out our salvation and glorify You in all things (Philippians 2:12-13).


[1] Please see “The Ring” in Archives, August 2018 for more on this subject.

Inside Job

Do not let your adorning be external—the braiding of hair and the putting on of gold jewelry, or the clothing you wear— but let your adorning be the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God’s sight is very precious.
1Peter 3:3-4

A Reasonable Request

As longtime readers of my blog know, I have a number of treasured plants on my small suburban property, many of which were planted by my late husband, Ray. Although it’s impossible for me to pick a favorite, my beautiful crape myrtle ranks high on the list. This isn’t the first post inspired by the beloved plant and probably won’t be the last.[1]

The stately ‘Natchez’[2] was a mere toddler when Ray planted it over 25 years ago. It now reaches the roofline of my two-story house, and its canopy is almost as wide as the tree is tall. My neighbors have been patient with branches that grew over the property line, only to drop tiny white blossoms on their driveway each summer. But, alas, they received a letter from our HOA about a related matter, which led them to kindly request that I have the offending limbs removed.

As one who’s known far and wide for my annual late-winter plea, “No crape murder!”, I could feel panic rising within me upon hearing my neighbor’s request.  I calmly assured him I would take care of it, but my thoughts were churning. Who could I trust to do the necessary work without maiming my beautiful tree? I had to find someone who would respect the tree and understand its intrinsic value. I needed an arborist.

Professional Help

I called a reputable company whose client list includes the Atlanta Botanical Garden. The first thing their associate said as he exited his vehicle and strode toward me boosted my confidence. Surveying the array of plants in my front garden, he declared approvingly, “I can see you don’t have a typical neighborhood property.” When he proceeded to call one of my unique specimen plants by its proper name, I knew I’d contacted the right people.

Even though our subsequent conversations further allayed my fears, an undercurrent of anxiety developed as pruning day approached. The 3-person crew arrived promptly at 8 a.m. My cheerful greeting belied the angst I was feeling, but it was evident the young man carrying the chain saw had been briefed not only on the work to be done but also on the tree’s significance.

I went inside, leaving the arborist and his helpers to their work. Even though they labored for nearly three hours, I resisted the urge to go back outside. I occasionally peeked out windows instead to check on their progress. I prayed for their safety – and that I’d still recognize my tree when they were finished.

I finally ventured out, preparing myself for whatever I might encounter. The sight of my tree left me speechless. It was gorgeous. I imagined the majestic tree, relieved of its extra weight and ragged branches, sighing in relief, much as I did after my first post-Covid-shutdown haircut.

As I stood next to the sturdy trunk, gazing up into the magnificent canopy, I realized much of the work had taken place on the inside. Before the pruning, anyone viewing the crape myrtle from the street would have seen its lush, flower-laden canopy. But what they couldn’t see were the dead branches, crossed limbs, and water shoots[3], which were neither attractive nor beneficial.

In the Master’s Hands

As frequently happens when I’m working in my garden, the Lord brought to mind a spiritual connection – in this case, the type of beauty we’re called to cultivate. It’s right to care for our bodies and be good stewards of our physical selves. Yet we often spend an excessive amount of time and money making sure our outsides are beautiful while neglecting the seat of true beauty, our hearts.

Sometimes we’re blind to the ugliness within. Then again, we recognize it and attempt to cover it up. Or,  we may apply pitiful bandaids to our deep heart wounds, seeking to heal ourselves in ways that are temporary at best or harmful at worst. But, just as the crape myrtle outgrew me long ago, making it impossible for me to do the necessary pruning, there’s no way for us to cultivate the beauty of the soul that’s precious in the Lord’s sight without the sanctifying power of the Spirit.

Praise God for blessing believers with that very power! First, the Spirit enlightens the eyes of our hearts that we might see aright (Ephesians 1:16-18). Then the same power that raised Jesus from the dead continues to work in us (Ephesians 1:19-20) to will and do His good pleasure (Philippians 2:13). Though our outer selves decline with age, our inner selves are renewed day by day (2 Corinthians 4:16), becoming increasingly beautiful as we are transformed more and more into the image of Jesus (2 Corinthians 3:18).

Though the transformation process may be rigorous at times and require significant pruning (John 15:1-2), we can trust the One Who loves us more than we can comprehend (Ephesians 3:18-19). He knows what it will take to bring out the beauty He already sees in us and will be faithful to finish what He’s begun (Philippians 1:6).

Dear Lord, thank You for the gift of Your Spirit at work within us to create imperishable beauty. May that beauty be evident in quiet, gentle spirits that bless others and draw them to You.  


[1] I included several as devotions in my book, Be Still, Quiet Moments With God in My Garden. See for example, “Prudent Pruning” (Archives, October 2020), “Exfoliation – Reprise” (Archives, September 2020), and “Bearing All Things” (Archives, February 2017).

[2] Lagerstroemia indica x fauriei ‘Natchez’

[3] Water sprouts or water shoots are shoots that arise from the trunk of a tree or from branches that are several years old, from latent buds.

Longing for Home

If they had been thinking of that land from which they had gone out, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city.
Hebrews 11:15-16

A Devastating Blow

I watched as the EMTs carried Mom, cradled in her bedsheet, to the waiting ambulance. Though it appeared one of my worst fears, a fall-induced broken hip, had come to pass, I prayed Mom would somehow be able to recover and return home.

Several hours later,  x-rays confirmed our initial suspicions. I texted my kids[1] and called my dad to relay the daunting news along with the doctors’ recommendation that Mom have surgery to repair her hip. We debated surgery due to Mom’s overall fragile state, but there was no discussion necessary when it came to our ultimate goal: to bring Mom home, whatever it took.

Not only did Mom make it through the surgery, but her surgeon said she did well, and the rod he placed in her hip would be sturdy enough to support her when she was ready to stand up. All good news. Thank You, Lord!

Sadly, Mom’s mental state offset the positive report regarding her physical status. She was confused and disoriented. We prayed those symptoms were the after-effects of anesthesia and would soon wear off. Though her thinking remained muddled, Mom made it clear to anyone who’d listen that she wanted to go home – the sooner, the better.

Preparations

Physical and occupational therapy began the day after surgery as we looked forward to Mom getting strong enough to be discharged. We arranged to have the necessary equipment delivered and contracted with an in-home healthcare agency to provide 24/7 care.

I was present for the equipment delivery and watched as the technician set everything up. All the while, a knot in my stomach drew tighter and tighter. I half-listened while he explained how each piece of equipment worked, fearing the knot would tighten to the point of cutting off my breath.  Left alone to survey the place prepared for Mom, a sense of despair welled up within me. I knew Mom wanted to come home, but not like this, not to be bedridden.

Even before she broke her hip, a severe case of sciatica had limited her mobility and activities. She spent her last weeks at home sitting, resting her leg, no doubt torturous for someone used to being so active. Seeing her frustration at being sidelined, I was reminded of the story she recounted of her beloved father, a farmer who cherished being outside. After he had a heart attack, his doctor told him he couldn’t work in his garden anymore. As Mom told it, PaPa would sit in the kitchen of the home he shared with my grandmother, gazing out the window toward the little church where he was a lifelong member. “I’d rather be up there in the cemetery than sitting here doing nothing,” he’d lament.

I couldn’t help but wonder if Mom hadn’t had similar thoughts. Even though the little church was 400 miles away, I knew she could see it just as clearly in her mind’s eye as my grandfather could sitting at his kitchen window all those years ago.

God’s Plan

Long days in the hospital passed with no perceptible improvement. Still, we doggedly pursued keeping our promise to Mom to bring her home. With the specter of long-term disability looming menacingly, we turned our attention to procuring in-home hospice to supplement the 24/7 caregiver.

When I told the hospice coordinator about Mom’s oft-expressed plea to go home, she asked if I knew what she meant by “home.” Though I never questioned her desire to be back at home with Dad, I pondered Audrey’s question. Could it be, after days of suffering, Mom had begun to long for her heavenly Home?

Audrey suggested moving Mom to a hospice facility for a few days to address her pain more effectively. We agreed, still intending to bring her home. But God had other plans. Barely 24 hours after she arrived at Tranquility, the Lord called Mom to Himself.

As sad as I was not to be able to keep my promise to Mom, I rejoiced, knowing God was fully capable of keeping His (John 14:2-3). Though we had prepared a place for Mom, the one He had waiting offered ultimate healing and the joy of being in His presence (Jude 24).

A Promise Kept

Some years ago, when we discussed last wishes,  Mom told me she wanted her body brought back to the country church where she grew up. That was a promise I could keep. On May 7th, we gathered in the dearly-loved sanctuary. We sat on decades-old wooden pews, Mom’s flower-bedecked casket in front of us, as my son-in-law led her service. We couldn’t take her back to her home in Georgia, but we brought her back to her heart’s home, where she first knew the love of family and the love of her Savior.

After the service, several of my cousins serving as pallbearers carried Mom’s earthly remains to their final resting place – for now. For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord. Therefore encourage one another with these words (1 Thessalonians 4:16-18).

As I stood by her grave, peace overcame my sorrow, a peace I’ve felt each time I visit that cemetery and observe the gravemarkers of other departed relatives, including my baby sister and dear husband, Ray. I imagine the day of Jesus’ return described in 1 Thessalonians when we’ll all rise together. He’ll welcome us into our forever Home, the one we’re truly longing for (Ecclesiastes 3:11).

Dear Lord, how I thank You for the assurance of eternal life in Your presence, a promise secured by the precious blood of Jesus shed on our behalf. I look forward to the Home where there will be no more death or mourning, or crying, or pain anymore, for the former things will have passed away (Revelation 21:4).


[1] “My kids” = adult daughters, Mary and Jessie, and Mary’s husband Justin.