Never alone – Reprise

Dear Readers,

I pray you’re finding ways to stay connected during this time of social distancing. Though technology can sometimes be intrusive, I’m grateful to live in an age when there are so many options available to keep in touch. 057While Grammie Mondays and Wednesdays are temporarily suspended, FaceTime allows me to visit with my grandchildren, though I’m just as likely to see a knee or the floor as they wiggle and giggle in and out of view. Mom and I logged on to Facebook Live for last night’s church service. I start most of my days listening to a podcast or two. Phone calls, e-mails, texts throughout the day keep me attached.

But oh how I miss the hugs and being in each other’s presence. Thus gathering with my neighbors for another Sunday afternoon session of worshipful singing yesterday was a special blessing. No hugs, of course, as we kept the prescribed distance. Even so, raising our voices together in song, prayer, and cheerful banter lifted my spirits in ways virtual visits can’t.

055I awoke to brilliant sunshine this morning, with one of the hymns we sang yesterday playing in my mind. I’ve hummed snippets of “Because He Lives” sporadically ever since, thankful to belong to the Lord of all, thankful to be sheltering in place surrounded by fellow believers. So I dedicate this post, a slightly-modified version of one I first published in June 2018, to them. I pray it will encourage you to look up and reach out during these unprecedented times.

* * * * *

Later this month, I’ll mark the 26th anniversary of my family’s move to Georgia. My tenure in the home my late husband Ray and I chose as our “raise-the-kids” house will then surpass by a decade my second-longest-term abode, the house I grew up in. Neighbors have come and gone over the years and I’ve watched several crops of children, including my own dear daughters, grow up. Currently, the homes around my cul-de-sac are filled with a pleasant mix of young families and empty-nesters.

IMG_6001I was working in my garden one recent afternoon, when my youngest neighbor, sweet-spirited Sadie, paid me a visit. We were chatting about flowers and butterflies and bumblebees when she suddenly asked, “Do you have a husband?” I replied, “I used to, but he’s already in heaven. He planted a lot of my trees. That’s why I love them so much.” As I watched, belatedly realizing I’d given a much-too-detailed reply to her simple question, her countenance was overshadowed by pensive consternation. Nonetheless, before I had a chance to offer up something more appropriate, Sadie’s expression brightened once again as she assured me, “But you’re not alone! You have lots of people around you!” I immediately followed up with, “You’re right! I have such good neighbors.”

With this, we took turns naming all the folks who live around us. Sadie finished the list, “And Sophie!” Yes, the boisterous ball of fluffy white fur, canine companion to our newest neighbors, is an essential part of the mix. With our conversation thus concluded, Sadie skipped across the street and up her driveway, ponytail swinging side to side with each hop.

I’ve reflected on our exchange several times since. It was such a life-giving reminder of the blessing of community. Created in the image of our Triune God, we are meant to live in relationship with Him and others. Early on, God said it wasn’t good for man to be alone. Although the Genesis account refers specifically to Adam’s need of a suitable helpmate (wife), it’s also clear the animals couldn’t provide the requisite companionship fellow human beings could (Genesis 2:18-23). People need people. We’re not meant to navigate life alone.

Sometimes it’s tempting to try, especially if you’re an introvert or an I-can-handle-this-myself type. Or maybe you figure everyone else is busy with their own responsibilities and you don’t want to be a bother. Or perhaps you’ve gotten your feelings hurt one time too many and decided to withdraw. (Please note: each of these scenarios has applied to me at some point in my life and most likely will again!) Whatever your rationale might be, Scripture is full of passages on the importance of relationships as well as how to treat each other. We’re told to love our neighbors as ourselves, to consider others’ needs before our own, to share and forgive and encourage (Matthew 22:39; Philippians 2:3-4; Luke 6:37-38).

In addition to our biological families, those who belong to God are part of a spiritual family, with unique benefits and obligations. For example:

  • The Apostle Paul says believers form the Body of Christ on earth, with each having a specific role, just as the various parts of our physical bodies have a critical part in keeping us healthy and alive. We are called to use our gifts and abilities to benefit others and to refrain from comparing ourselves to our brothers and sisters whose gifts and abilities are different (1 Corinthians 12).
  • We’ve been adopted into the very family of God and are being conformed more and more to the image of our elder Brother, Jesus, the firstborn Son (Ephesians 1:3-5; Romans 8:29). We are assured of an eternal inheritance and an eternal Home (1 Peter 1:3-5; John 14:2-3).
  • Though spending time with God individually is essential to our spiritual growth and transformation, Hebrews 10:24-25 clearly states the necessity of corporate worship: “And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.”
  • James instructed believers to pray for one another while Paul admonished believers to pray without ceasing (James 5:16; 1 Thessalonians 5:17). Such supplications can unite us, even when we’re unable to be together physically (Romans 15:30-32). Furthermore, Scripture tells us we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses, those who’ve gone before us, persevering in the faith (Hebrews 12:1-2). [1]
  • We are blessed with the indwelling presence and power of the Holy Spirit to comfort, guide and counsel us (John 14:15-17, 25-26). Apart from this divine Helper, we’d have no hope of pleasing God; with Him, our sanctification and, ultimately, our glorification, are ensured (2 Peter 1:3-4).

Family and friends, brothers and sisters in Christ, a loving Father, a selfless older Brother, the indwelling Spirit – sweet Sadie was so right. I’m not alone!

* * * * *

O Lord, how I thank You for the blessing of relationships and for your promise to never leave or forsake us. Please help us to be ever-mindful of your presence during this time of social distancing and potential isolation. And may we reach out to others with the love You’ve lavished upon us, using the amazing array of options available to do so.

 

[1] Note: This passage begins with “Therefore”, referring back to the long list of bygone saints who lived by faith.

Pollen Season

I first noticed the yellow dusting atop my dark-blue CR-V. Then it appeared on my black mailbox. Yesterday I found it sprinkled across everything from leaves to walkway to my water bottle. What might the stealthy invader be? Pine pollen!

I usually grimace when I detect the initial signs of yellowness that descends on our area each spring, knowing what lies ahead. Depending on rainfall or lack thereof, the layer of pollen can become so thick tire tracks materialize on driveways and footprints on sidewalks. Some years I watch incredulously as windblown clouds drift off pines, destined to coat everything in their path. Nothing is immune from the intruder.

But this year the opening salvo made me smile. Because it reminded me God is keeping the covenant promise He made to Noah, his offspring, and every living creature. “While earth remains, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease.” (Genesis 8:22)

img_2910Last week, when I wrote “It is Well”, I figured everything that was going to suspend operations and activities had done so. Wrong! Notices of closings and cancellations continued to mount up, though at a slower pace. I found myself turning repeatedly to the passages I included in that post, truth to combat fear and quell anxious thoughts.

362I’ve also been outside more, strolling through my neighborhood, working in my garden. I’ve seen sidewalks chalked with cheerful messages. Encouraging posts fill my Facebook feed. And earlier today I joined my neighbors for a hymn sing as we gathered, socially-distanced, outside our piano-playing neighbor’s home. God is working difficult circumstances for good.  He always does. (Romans 8:28)

173In the midst of the uncertainty surrounding COVID-19, spring is here, full of hope and visible reminders of God’s goodness. I’ll let photos, scripture passages, and hymn lyrics do the talking for the rest of this post – my offering of praise to the One who lovingly sustains us, my contribution to the thread of encouragement weaving its way through social media.

248“Fairest Lord Jesus, Ruler of all nature, O Thou of God and man the Son; Thee will I cherish, Thee will I honor, Thou my soul’s glory, joy, and crown. Fair are the meadows, Fairer still the woodlands, Robed in the blooming garb of spring: Jesus is fairer, Jesus is purer, Who makes the woeful heart to sing.”[1]

342Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. (Matthew 6:28a-29)

The LORD is a stronghold for the oppressed, a stronghold in times of trouble. And those who know your name put their trust in you for you, O LORD, have not forsaken those who seek you. (Psalm 9:10)

047Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God. (Psalm 42:11)

Be merciful to me, O God, be merciful to me, for in you my soul takes refuge; in the shadow of your wings I will take refuge, till the storms of destruction pass by. (Psalm 57:1)

265“O Lord my God, when I in awesome wonder Consider all the words They hands have made, I see the stars, I hear the rolling thunder, Thy pow’r  throughout the universe displayed. When thro’ the woods and forest glades I wander And hear the birds sing sweetly in the trees, When I look down from lofty mountain grandeur, And hear the brook and feel the gentle breeze. Then sings my soul, my Saviour God, to Thee; How great Thou art, how great Thou art! Then sings my soul, my Savior God, to Thee: How great Thou art, how great Thou art!”[2]

351I will praise the name of God with a song; I will magnify him with thanksgiving . . . Let heaven and earth praise him, the seas and everything that moves in them. (Psalm 69:30, 34)

The heavens are yours; the earth also is yours; the world and all that is in it, you have founded them. (Psalm 89:11)

042“This is my Father’s world, And to my listening ears All nature sings, and round me rings The music of the spheres. This is my Father’s world: I rest me in the thought Of rocks and trees, of skies and seas – His hands the wonders wrought. This is my Father’s world, The birds their carols raise, The morning light, the lily white, Declare their Maker’s praise. This is my Father’s world: He shines in all that’s fair; In the rustling grass I hear Him pass, He speaks to me everywhere.”[3]

4-10-2014, The Pocket 5For you, O Lord, have made me glad by your work; at the works of your hands I sing for joy. (Psalm 92:4)

Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth.  Serve the Lord with gladness! Come into his presence with singing! Know that the Lord, he is God! It is he who made us, and we are his; we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture. Enter his gates with thanksgiving, and his courts with praise! Give thanks to him; bless his name! For the Lord is good; his steadfast love endures forever, and his faithfulness to all generations. (Psalm 100)

Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever . . . for me it is good to be near God; I have made the Lord God my refuge, that I may tell of all your works. (Psalm 73:25-26; 28)

[1] “Fairest Lord Jesus”, anonymous German Hymn, stanzas 1 and 2.

[2] “How Great Thou Art”, stanzas 1 and 2 and chorus; Stuart K. Hine, 1953.

[3] “This is My Father’s World”, stanzas 1 and 2; Maltbie D. Babcock.

It is Well

Last week, a friend posted he needed a villain worthy of the heroine in the novel he’s working on. Not any villain would do since the heroine is possibly the best he’s ever created. I almost commented, “How about a villainous virus?” In light of all that’s transpired in the days-that-seem-like-weeks since, I’m glad I didn’t share my attempt at humor.

Preventive measures ramped up quickly, as it became apparent the coronavirus spreads exponentially.  The avalanche of precautionary decisions wiped out rights-of-spring sporting events like March Madness and the Masters, closed schools for the foreseeable future, and led to the cancellation of myriad other events. Our governor declared a healthcare state of emergency, a first in the history of Georgia.

And, just like that, normal as we knew it disappeared.

As the dominoes kept falling, an underlying sense of sadness crept into my soul. I’d felt it before, in the wake of 9/11, when our nation came to a standstill, dazed by the vicious attack. Fear and uncertainty veiled our country then as it does now. Activities and freedoms so integral to our national psyche that they’re taken for granted, ground to a halt. No telling how long the threat might last or what kind of havoc it will wreak in the meantime.

A different perspective

Scripture refers to us as dust and grass, finite creatures, yet precious to the Creator who has great compassion for us (Psalm 103:13-16). He understands our fears and frailties and encourages us to keep our eyes fixed on things above, eternal things, for what is seen is temporary (2 Corinthians 4:18).

No stranger to sudden changes and unexpected loss, I’ve turned repeatedly to those unseen things this week, finding consolation and reassurance as I have in the past. In that spirit, I offer the following somewhat-random observations, not to be dismissive of anyone’s concerns, but as a reminder of our Father’s loving oversight. I pray one or more of these analogies and assurances will comfort your heart as they’ve been comforting mine:

  • No frenzied rush to the grocery store for me. I didn’t need much anyway and stuck to my usual grocery-buying schedule. Almost-bare shelves greeted me in nearly every aisle and there was no loaf bread or milk to be found. So much for my measured approach. Back at home unloading the meager provisions I managed to procure, I remembered Jesus’ references to Himself as the Bread of Life and the Spring of living water (John 6:35; John 4:10; 13-14). We have a Source of spiritual sustenance and refreshment that will never be depleted.
  • Last week’s stock market volatility was enough to make even the most ardent thrill-seeker queasy. But we’re told to store up treasures in heaven, out of reach of earthly threats (Matthew 6:19-21). Furthermore, we have an eternal inheritance, guaranteed by the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 1:14) and the immeasurable riches of God’s grace toward us in Jesus (Ephesians 2:7).
  • I frequently gaze out my kitchen windows at the birds flocked around the various feeders I provide for them. Watching them the other day, I thought how carefree they seemed, going about their bird business – finding mates, building nests, eating copious amounts of seed –  oblivious to COVID-19. img_2837Similar thoughts accompanied me as I strolled my woods exclaiming over the latest plant finds. Jesus’ declaration that we need not worry because the God who cares for the birds and the lilies will watch over His beloved children, who are much more precious, is among my most cherished (Matthew 6:25-34). It’s also one of the reasons I find so much solace in my garden since I see the truth of His statement played out repeatedly.
  • img_2754You may argue that the birds and flowers aren’t capable of worrying since they don’t know what we know or reason as we reason. But God says the same about us. Even though we’re created in His image, His ways and His thoughts are higher than ours, beyond our finite minds (Isaiah 55:8-9). He is Sovereign. We aren’t. And it often takes events that are obviously out of our control to remind us, even though every breath we take is a gift from God.
  • Satan is the arch-villain who came to kill, steal, and destroy. But Jesus, the Good Shepherd, laid down His life for the sheep that they may have life and have it abundantly (John 10:10-11). No matter what befalls us, our eternal destiny is secure. No one can snatch us out of the Father’s hand and nothing can separate us from His love (John 10:29; Romans 8:38-39).

As we go through these next days and weeks, may we rest in all we know about God’s character, His goodness and mercy toward all His creatures.

Father, how I thank You for your lovingkindness and sufficient grace which allow us to say, “It is well with my soul”, regardless of our circumstances. You are our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble. We have nothing to fear.

Hold the Mayo

img_2711My late husband, Ray, long-suffering when it came to my foibles, drew the line at fast food orders. In the days before “have it your way” became a slogan, I’d request a cheeseburger, lettuce, tomato, no mayo, no onions. Minutes drug past while they made my special order.

Ray would mumble, “You know it’s not fast food when you ask for something special.” Who could blame him? After all, he was hangry.

That long-ago scenario came to mind as I thought about writing this post.

Sandwiched

Often, when someone asks how I’m doing, I reply, “I’m sandwiched.”

According to a HuffPost article, “Social worker Dorothy Miller originally coined the term ‘sandwich generation’ back in 1981 to describe women in their 30s to 40s who were ‘sandwiched’ between young children and aging parents as their primary caregiver . . .  Women are delaying child-bearing and seniors are living longer . . . the ‘sandwich generation’ definition has morphed along the way and tends to target both genders and the predominant age is 40-65 years old.”[1]

I’m blessed to have my 88-year-old parents living close by in their own home, able to take care of each other and their daily needs. I’m equally blessed that my daughter, son-in-law, and 3 grandchildren live a mere 6 miles away. Mary and Justin are capable of tending to their little brood. So, technically, I’m only responsible for my own upkeep. Nonetheless, I’m part of the support team for my parents and my children and grandchildren. I check in with Mom and Dad each day, have dinner with them several evenings a week, and take Mom to most of her medical appointments.  And I spend two days each week with my grandchildren.

These people are precious to me. I’m thankful to be retired and available to help out.

What about me?

But I’m one person, an only-child and widow at that. Sometimes the load gets heavy. Days go by when I can’t keep up with my chores, much less work in my garden or write anything meaningful. The hardest moments are those when both generations need me, such as times I’ve been with Mom or Dad at the hospital on a day when I’d normally be helping Mary with the children.

I’ve never figured out how to be two places at once, though there were plenty of times I longed for that superpower. Over the years I worked full-time for a large corporation, raising my daughters alone, I’d sometimes quip, “I wish I could lie down on the copy machine and make copies of myself – one to stay at home, one to go to work, one to handle miscellaneous stuff.”

Even though I’m retired, I still occasionally yearn for the ability to duplicate myself.

The next thing

By now you may be wondering about my disdain for mayo. It’s not so much that I dislike it, more that I prefer it in limited quantities. And therein lies the problem – fast-food cooks tend to slather on way too much, thus overpowering the other flavors. Burger, cheese, lettuce, tomato –all present, but indiscernible as bite after bite tastes like mayonnaise!

Likewise, seemingly ceaseless demands, commitments, and responsibilities can produce a layer of stress, anxiety, even resentment and guilt, which overwhelms and disguises the sweeter flavors of life. The blessings associated with relationships, serving others, and stewarding the gifts and talents God has entrusted to us become obscured when our existence feels like one big to-do list.

Elisabeth Elliot is quoted in the book Suffering is Never for Nothing: “There’s an old legend, I’m told, inscribed in a parsonage in England somewhere on the sea coast, a Saxon legend that said, ‘Do the next thing.’ I don’t know any simpler formula for peace, for relief from stress and anxiety than that very practical, very down-to-earth word of wisdom. Do the next thing. That has gotten me through more agonies than anything else I could recommend.”[2]

That sage advice lines up with Jesus’ admonition in Matthew 6:34 to concentrate on the immediate instead of heaping up concerns about future events.

Sufficient grace

I recently had the opportunity to attend a 3-day women’s conference. The extended time of fellowship and learning allowed me to focus, to savor the experience unencumbered by responsibilities at home.  As I packed my bag on the last morning, a too-familiar sense of anxiety crept into my consciousness. Re-entry loomed on the horizon.

Tears welled up and spilled over when I told a friend about my apprehension. Her life-giving words echoed the teachings of the weekend: “Patsy, you didn’t need that extra measure of grace the past couple of days. God will give it to you when you need it again.”

You may not be “sandwiched” as defined above, dear reader; however, I’m guessing you have some conglomeration of responsibilities piled on your plate, a conglomeration that doesn’t lend itself to easy answers.

But there is One who assures us His yoke is easy, who offers rest for our very souls (Matthew 11:29-30). May we trust Him for wisdom and strength, moment by moment. For His grace is indeed sufficient and His power is made perfect in weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9a).

[1] Huffpost.com, “The Sandwich Generation: Who is Caring for You?”, 9/7/14, updated 11/7/14

[2] Eilsabeth Elliot, “Suffering is Never for Nothing”, (Nashville, B&H Publishing Group, 2019), 45-46.

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.