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.

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.

 

Hide and seek

11-5-2012, Peek-a-boo 5Surely one of the earliest and most endearing games we play with babies involves disappearing behind our hands only to reappear moments later, smiling and exclaiming, “peek-a-boo!” We repeat the sequence of movements multiple times, rewarded with baby’s surprised chuckles.

11-5-2012, Peek-a-boo 6Before long, infants turn into mobile toddlers, able to participate in the hiding aspect of the game. In fact, hide-and-seek becomes an oft-requested favorite, complete with random-number counting and much laughter while scurrying to find the perfect hiding spot. Shrieks are just as likely to accompany finding as being found.

IMG_1258Sometimes the hiding isn’t all that effective. For instance, even though most of the tiny body is covered up, a foot may remain visible. Or, try as I might, I can’t fully wedge myself between the wall and the recliner when the little people are hunting me.

And then there are times when I wander around, pretend-seeking the hidden one, musing, “Hmm, I wonder where (insert grandchild’s name) is?” The confident, she-can’t-find-me laughter that follows allows me to zero in like a honey bee to its hive. More laughter ensues, along with, “Let’s hide again, Grammie!”

Child’s play?

The first recorded episode of hide-and-seek was no child’s game. It wasn’t planned and it certainly wasn’t accompanied by laughter, unless it was the nervous kind borne of embarrassment. Genesis 3 recounts the story of the Fall. Satan, disguised as a serpent, engaged Eve in a doubt-God’s-goodness conversation – surely it wasn’t proper for God to withhold something as wonderful as the forbidden fruit? Sadly, it didn’t take much to convince Eve of her right to partake. She ate and then shared some of the bounty with Adam. (verses 1-6).

Oh, their eyes were opened, just like Satan promised. But instead of delighting in their newfound enlightenment, they were overcome with shame as they realized they were naked (verse 7a). Knowing God would soon arrive for His daily garden stroll, they hastily covered themselves with leafy loincloths and hid (verses 7b-8).

Shame or guilt?

We’ve been hiding from God and each other ever since, haven’t we? Afraid if people knew our short-comings and the secret sins that plague us, they’d turn away.

Guilt is a helpful, God-given poke to our conscience convicting us of a specific wrongdoing, leading us to confess, repent, seek forgiveness and be restored. By contrast, shame condemns, whispering some variation of, “You’re bad and you always will be”, to our weary souls. Like Georgia-clay stains on white socks, we just can’t rid ourselves of that sense of not measuring up, the vague feeling of not fitting in or meeting expectations.

So we cover up and keep our distance, as we strive to maintain an acceptable facade at all times, even, or maybe especially, at church where it seems like everyone else has it all together. We hide in our respective caves, safe, but so alone.

Come out, come out, wherever you are!

Even though we usually don’t want to be found out, we do want to be found.

Praise God for coming to the garden in the cool of that fateful day, just like He always had before. This, even though He already knew of Adam and Eve’s disobedience, the great pain it would cause their offspring and the price He Himself would pay to redeem them (John 3:16). He came bearing a perfect plan and the promise of better garments. The seed of the woman would one day crush the head of the serpent so all of God’s children could be robed in the righteousness of His beloved Son (verse 15).

Jesus. The Good Shepherd who came to seek the lost (Luke 19:10). The unblemished Lamb, slain for us (John 1:29). The Risen Savior who bids us come that we might find rest for our souls (Matthew 11:29). He knows the very worst about us, but calls us from darkness into light (Isaiah 9:2, John 1:5), to be cleansed by His precious blood that He might present us spotless before God (Ephesians 5:25-27).

Jesus is the safest of safe places for the children of God (John 3:17; Romans 8:1).

Becoming a safe place

Scripture is clear that we are to be conformed to the likeness of our elder brother (Romans 8:29), transformed by the renewing of our minds (Romans 12:2). So how can we become safe places for fellow, flawed sojourners, afraid to come out of their caves? Scripture entreats us to:

  • Practice humility, considering others’ needs, hurts and heartaches before our own (Philippians 2:3-4). Each one of us is dealing with things known only to God (Psalm 139:1-3, 23-24).
  • Judge not, remembering all we’ve been forgiven (Matthew 7:1-5; Luke 6:37-38). Though our sins may differ from those of our brothers and sisters in Christ, we’re all sinners saved by grace (Isaiah 53:6; Romans 3:23).
  • Be willing to become vulnerable, stewarding our own stories well as we share examples of God’s goodness, faithfulness, even discipline across the years we’ve walked with Him (Psalm 78).

May we live in such a way that it’s safer, indeed more desirable, for others to come out of their caves, into the Light of the One who will not break a bruised reed or quench a smoldering wick (Isaiah 42:3).

Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity. (Colossians 3:12-14)

 

Encourage one another

(This is the promised continuation of my last post, “Through the night”.)

More prayer preceded my call to ICU the next morning. My heart rate increased as I waited for the nurse’s update, only to hear, “She’s not here.” What?! Not there?? I’m sure only moments passed until she added, “She’s still in the ED”, but it was plenty long enough for a panic-laden “Mom died and they didn’t call me?!” to pierce my racing heart. Instead, her condition had improved over-night and they were going to move her to a regular room.

“THANK YOU, LORD!!” I instantly recognized God had graciously heard the prayers of His people on Mom’s behalf. It wasn’t the first time I experienced the palpable power of prayer.

Mom suffered a heart attack the week after Christmas, 2010 while strolling through the neighborhood with my dad. They spent the night in cardiac ICU as Mom awaited a heart catheterization the next afternoon. When I arrived at the hospital to relieve my exhausted father, I assured him I’d be Mom’s responsible person so he could go home to rest. My “I’ve-got-this” confidence would soon dissipate like mist blown by the wind.

The image of the attendants who rolled Mom out of the testing area is imprinted on my mind. Stationed one on either end of the gurney, they gazed down, refusing to meet my eyes after saying the doctor would be out to talk to me. A niggling sense of concern began to infiltrate my optimistic expectations.

The doctor delivered the sucker punch moments later: “We have a life-threatening situation here. Your mother has three blocked arteries – one 90%, one 80% and one 70%. We’re going to start prepping her for surgery immediately so she’ll be ready as soon as an operating room becomes available.”

My mind struggled to accept this verdict. “Wait! Surely there must be a mistake. I’m here alone!!” The techs’ immediate response as they whisked Mom away dispelled any lingering doubt. In the midst of my turmoil, God’s still quiet voice reminded me Mom and I weren’t alone at all. I may have been undone by the news of Mom’s condition, but it hadn’t surprised Him.

In spite of the Spirit’s timely nudge, I knew I needed some of my people with me. Any attempt to steady my voice as I called daughter Mary and asked her to bring my dad to the hospital vanished when she answered. Like a child who scrapes her knee and bravely holds back the tears until she reaches home and the consolation of her mother, I poured out the details, urging Mary to come quickly.

Mom and I were able to spend a few minutes together before they wheeled her into the OR. I prayed, I held her hand, I told her she was the best mom I could have ever hoped for. And then I watched, desolate, as the doors closed behind her and her attendants, wondering if we’d shared our last moments in this life.

grace logoI trudged to the waiting room and slumped into a seat, longing for the arrival of my family. But I knew there were other reinforcements to call on – our church family. Almost as soon as I sent the prayer request e-mail, I heard a chime alerting me to an incoming message. Recognizing the urgency of the situation, our prayer chain coordinator forwarded my note to the congregation as soon as she received it.

The taunting fears echoing through my mind since I heard the results of the heart cath fell silent. My family’s physical presence was imminent and God’s people were praying as He sovereignly watched over Mom and guided the surgeons’ hands.

I wrote in recent posts, “Preach to yourself” and “Through the night”, how essential it is for us to remind ourselves of all we know about God – His character, promises, assurances, faithfulness, love, goodness.[1] Nonetheless, we’re not meant to navigate this world alone. We are relational beings, like the Triune God who created us in His image. (Genesis 1:26) As such, Scripture tells us to:

  • rejoice with those who rejoice and mourn with those who mourn. (Romans 12:15)
  • comfort others with the comfort we ourselves have received from the God of all comfort. (2 Corinthians 1:3-4)
  • pray for one another (Ephesians 6:18; James 5:16)
  • bear one another’s burdens. (Galatians 6:2)
  • stir one another up to love and good works. (Hebrews 10:24)
  • encourage each other. (Hebrews 10:25)

There are times when the road becomes steep, the journey difficult; times when healing doesn’t come and death does. Jesus told us we would have troubles in this world (John 16:33), but He promised to never leave us (Matthew 28:20) and sent His Spirit to comfort us. (John 14:16, 26) Furthermore, He adopted us into His family, a family full of brothers and sisters, so we might mutually encourage and assist each other as we make our way Home.

“Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. For if they fall, one will lift up his fellow. But woe to him who is alone when he falls and has not another to lift him up! Again, if two lie together, they keep warm, but how can one keep warm alone? And though a man might prevail against one who is alone, two will withstand him—a threefold cord is not quickly broken.” (Ecclesiastes 4:9-12)

O, Lord, please help us to be faithful comforters, encouragers and prayer warriors!

 

Epilogue: During my annual reminiscences surrounding my husband’s death in 1997, I came across this notation in my journal: “This has been the most difficult week of my entire life, but I can honestly say I’ve never felt more loved. Lord, thank you for loving me through so many people.” Since I started working on this post several days ago, my brother-in-law David passed away. My prayer is that his family will be able to say the same, as they feel the love of God surrounding them in the prayers and presence of His people.

[1] See Archives April 4, 2019 and May 9, 2019 respectively.

No Unnecessary Parts

Soon after I turned 50, I began noticing a disconcerting trend whenever I mentioned an ailment to my doctor or dentist. Time after time, they prefaced their replies with, “As we age”, and then went on to explain my symptoms were to be expected given my advancing years. (Insert eye roll.)

Well, here I am, having completed another decade with its attendant wear and tear and I’m starting to believe them. But, being my mother’s daughter, I refuse to go down easily or give up my favorite pastimes, even though most of them – gardening, writing[1], needlework – take a toll on my hands and arms. Then, when my hands and arms get tired, other parts try to compensate, particularly my neck and back. They in turn grow weary from assisting in addition to carrying their own loads.

It’s getting easier and easier for me to relate to the Apostle Paul’s assertion that all parts of the body are necessary and the body performs best when each part is functioning as God designed it to. (1 Corinthians 12) Of course, Paul was using that superb analogy to describe how beautifully God equipped His children with varying gifts and graces to build up the church, the body of believers. And, just as I’m increasingly aware of the veracity of my doctor’s statements, serving as Coordinator of our Women’s Ministry Committee is teaching me how appropriate Paul’s comparison is.

IMG_E0722The committee was in transition late last year when I was asked to join. The remaining members were dedicated to the ministry and each other, but tired from trying to do it all, especially when the assigned tasks didn’t fit their gifts. Fortunately, our pastor asked long-time women’s ministry leader and member of our church, Susan Hunt, to mentor us. With Susan’s guidance, and using the five foundational principles outlined in Women’s Ministry in the Local Church[2], we restructured the committee around several areas of service: Compassion, Community, Elder/Deacon Support and Bible Study, with a Coordinator to guide, support and disciple the ministry leaders.[3]

As the time approached to allocate the various roles, each woman on the committee prayerfully considered her giftedness as well as the gifts of her sisters in light of the positions we needed to fill. We prayed for God’s guidance and we prayed for a spirit of unity and harmony when we assigned leaders to the ministry areas.

Nonetheless, we were concerned about the possibility of more than one woman thinking she was best-suited to a given ministry, while another ministry remained unclaimed. We also wanted to avoid the feeling of a hierarchy, where one role was deemed more or less valuable than another. The previously-referenced 12th chapter of 1st Corinthians makes it abundantly clear that there are many different gifts, all valuable and bestowed by God as He sees fit, for the building up of the church. Paul affirms the same in Romans 12:3-8:

For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. For as in one body we have many members, and the members do not all have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another. Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, in proportion to our faith; if service, in our serving; the one who teaches, in his teaching; the one who exhorts, in his exhortation; the one who contributes, in generosity; the one who leads, with zeal; the one who does acts of mercy, with cheerfulness.

O, us of little faith! As we went ministry by ministry the morning we met, each woman respectfully requested her role, with her sisters gladly affirming the fit. We were relieved. We were energized. And we were so grateful God had graciously gone before us, pre-assembling our team based on the needs of our congregation and how He’s gifted us.

In my 30-year corporate career, the best managers were the ones who matched the talents and abilities of their workers to the available tasks, resulting in a happier and more productive team. I’ve already seen a similar outcome since we apportioned the assignments. Within days of our planning meeting, ministry leaders started sending e-mails to each other, unprompted by me, as the women embraced their responsibilities and enthusiastically shared ideas with other committee members.

Several days before our first event, a Ladies’ Winter Tea, I awoke with a start one morning thinking, “What about the food? I don’t know what we’re serving!” My heart returned to its normal cadence as I reminded myself, “I don’t have to know. Roseann and her team have it covered.” And did they ever! The food was plentiful and delicious, the tables beautifully decorated. The women were joyfully using their gifts to glorify God and bless those in attendance.

We shared the new ministry structure with the women at the tea and encouraged them to consider their God-given gifts and where they can best use them to glorify Him and build up his body. Our prayer is that all of our women will become involved with one or more of the ministry areas this year.

In addition to special events, we have Bible studies and small discipleship groups. We are thankful for the positive momentum since restructuring the committee, however, this is the time we need to stay focused on God’s glory, not self-glory and self-congratulation. We must remember our confidence is in Christ alone, leaving no room for boasting in any aspect of our lives. Only then can we be life-giving leaders who reflect God’s goodness to those we seek to serve.

How about you? Are you doing your part to keep the Body strong?

Lord, You have graciously given each of us gifts and graces, abilities to be used for your glory and for the building up of your church. Please help us to gladly take on our roles, neither coveting the gifts of others nor being prideful about our own, for all we have and are, both spiritual and material, comes from You. (1 Chronicles 29:10-13; Ephesians 2:8-10; James 1:17)

 

[1] Including pen, typing and texting!

[2] Women’s Ministry in the Local Church, J. Ligon Duncan & Susan Hunt, Crossway Books, Wheaton, IL, 2006.

[3] Discipleship is part of each ministry leader’s role, as she disciples women serving in her area.