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.

Heavenly Hugs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Respite

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Spring is coming!

When I awoke this morning an almost-forgotten sight greeted me: sunshine! Yes, after a rain-filled week that felt more like a month and led one of my cousins to report his mildew was growing mildew, bright, beautiful sunlight streamed through my windows. My heart rejoiced and “Thank You, Lord!” escaped my lips.

A short time later, I took my usual seat at church. From there, I had a perfect vantage point to gaze at the brilliant blue sky, framed by the large window behind the pulpit. As we sang “Before the Throne of God Above”, I watched, misty-eyed, while wispy, breeze-borne clouds meandered by. The scene before me underscored the greatness of the One we praised in song.

Despite numerous indoor chores looming over me, I scampered outside as soon as I finished lunch. My weary soul longed for a dose of garden therapy. A scavenger hunt ensued. I gently nudged aside leaves to see if any plant friends had managed to puncture the soil and emerge from their winter rest. I inhaled the sweet aroma wafting from the paperbush. My gaze lingered on artful displays of moss. Each discovery buoyed my spirits. Spring is coming! The tiny sprouts sense it. The birds taking turns at my feeders know it.

There are times when we experience storms in our lives, seasons when it feels like the rain won’t ever go away. But, just like the sun is shining brightly above the clouds and the plants are nestled under their leafy blankets ready to burst forth, God is with us. Even when circumstances cloud our spiritual vision, even when we’re buffeted by doubts. Because He promised to be with us forever. (Deuteronomy 31:8; Matthew 28:20) And He always keeps His promises. (Joshua 21:45; 2 Corinthians 1:19-20)

Furthermore, He’s pledged to return, to take us to the Home He’s preparing for us (John 14:1-3), a Home where there will be no more death or tears or pain. (Revelation 21:4) Until then, He’s left countless reminders of His love and goodness, as exemplified below. May the photos from my afternoon stroll give you a sense of the hope and joy I felt as I ambled through my garden, warmed by the Son.

“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 Savior God to Thee; How great Thou art, how great Thou art!”[1]

 

 

 

[1] “How Great Thou Art” (2nd stanza), Text and Music, Stuart K. Hine, 1953.